Georg Simmel and Critical Realism

I was struck recently by an unexpected resonance with critical realism when reading Georg Simmel’s The View of Life, a late series of four essays which offer a broad philosophical perspective on the nature of life itself. In fact I should be more specific than critical realism insofar as the parallel is with Margaret Archer’s morphogenetic approach. For those unfamiliar with this, it is an explanatory methodology (rather than a theory per se) for analysing social processes which is built around the contrasting ideas of morphogenesis (social change) and morphostatis (social reproduction). It rests on the ontological claim that a pre-existing context shapes how agents interact through a whole range of factors, with that interaction then reproducing or changing the context which is inherited by agents in the future. It is a processual sociology but one which, as Alistair Mutch has pointed out, should be understood as a ‘weak processualism’ in the sense that it is as sensitive to periods of enduring stability as it is to periods of change. Furthermore, it highlights how social reproduction is an active process which is often worked towards in more or less deliberate ways, as opposed to being a default state of affairs which ensues in the absence of change.

I was struck by the similarity between Archer’s concepts of morphogenesis/morphostasis (literally a change in shape or the reproduction of an existing shape) and what Simmel talks about as ‘form’. He has a more expansive concept of form than Archer insofar as these boundaries cut across every aspect of human existence, establishing the gravity in which meaning becomes possible. The way he describes this reminds me of Charles Taylor’s conception of the ‘self in moral space’ in Sources of the Self:

We feel that the content and value of every hour stands between a higher and a lower; every thought between a wiser and a more foolish; every possession between a more extended and a more limited; every deed between a greater and a lesser measure of meaning, adequacy, and morality. We are continually orienting ourselves, even when we do not employ abstract concepts, to an “over us” and an “under us,” to a right and a left, to a more or less, a tighter or looser, a better or worse. The boundary, above and below, is our means for finding direction in the infinite space of our worlds.

Loc 360

The overlap comes I think in Simmel’s sense of “life as a synthesis of process and content” (to use the expression on loc 274 by Donald N. Levine and Daniel Silver in their introduction to the book) which coheres with Archer’s focus upon how activity always takes place within a context which is inherited as an outcome from a past activity. It left me wondering about the extent to which Simmel’s late proposal of a “philosophy of life”, which “would treat life as a synthesis of process and content, aiming to articulate the basic forms through which that synthesis proceed” (loc 274), might be seen as a parallel project to Archer’s Morphogenetic Approach. Particularly in its preoccupation with what Levine and Silver describe as “investigating mechanisms, dynamics, and cases of how processes of generation differ from processes of reproduction” (loc 282).

I was struck by the parallel between how they describe this project on Archer’s turn towards reflexivity in order to counteract the limitations of macrosociological perspectives which simply impute responses to the individual, as well as microsociological perspectives which remain content with the situated interaction between individuals as their explanatory focus. The description of the “shift in sociological perspective” which could be effected through Simmel’s ideas, “away from static representations and analyses in general toward one that from the outset looks at the seeds of changes-becoming, evolving, transforming, and dying-which may germinate in all social and cultural formations” (loc 284) certainly captures the dynamic character of Archer’s approach, albeit features which are rarely acknowledged by her critics. But it’s particularly this section in the discussion of Levine and Silver which made me think about the parallels to reflexivity. From loc 296:

It would entail analyses of the conditions that promote or inhibit the development of authentic individuality, particularly in families, schools, and voluntary associations. The converse of that relationship might open up entirely new areas for inquiry, directing attention to the implications for social organization and culture of the ascendance of increasing numbers of persons so oriented.

It’s important to stress that boundary is a more broader concept than social structure, designating a point of interaction between life and the world, in which the former confronts and responds to an effect up on its unfolding. But the way in which Simmel describes this process has such thought provoking resonances coming from the perspective of Archerian sociology that I would like to explore this issue in much more detail, considering how Simmel’s sense of ‘life’ might enrich the morphogenetic approach and vice versa.

I’m not sure Archer herself would like this direction of travel but I’m really intrigued by how Simmel’s sociology of life might be integrated into the morphogenetic approach as a metaphysical foundation and how this might look different to the philosophy of science which critical realism offers here. I’m not sure there are specific inconsistencies, as much as tonal differences which might generate different kinds of questions and inquiry.

It also suggests a way to think about the role of instruments and devices in Archerian sociology which is particularly relevant to my current project on technological reflexivity. From loc 396:

To illustrate, one of the most enormous steps mankind has made to go beyond a boundary, which at once results in an otherwise unattainable knowledge of our boundedness, lies in the broadening of our sensible world by the invention of the telescope and the microscope. Formerly, man had a world defined and limited by the natural use of the senses, a world thus harmonious with his total organization.

This might be an exceptionally broad conclusion to have drawn on the basis of an unfinished book but I’d be interested to hear from anyone familiar with Simmel’s work to know if I’m completely off track here, or if they too can see unexpected affinities which might be worth exploring.

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