The Cognitive Hesitation: or, CSS’s Sociological Predecessor23 min read

Simmel is widely considered to be the seminal figure from the classical sociological tradition on social network analysis. As certain principles and tools of network analysis have been transposed to empirical domains beyond their conventional home, Simmel has also become the classical predecessor for formal sociology, giving license to the effort and providing a host of formal techniques with which to pursue the work (Erikson 2013; Silver and Lee 2012). As Silver and Brocic (2019) argue, part of the appeal of Simmel’s “form” is its pragmatic utility and adaptability. Simmel demonstrates this in applying different versions of form to different empirical objects ( e.g. “the stranger” versus “exchange”). This suggests that we need not make much headway on deciphering what “form” actually is and still practice a formal sociology.

Though it may not seem like it, these recent efforts at formal sociology find their heritage in a sometimes rancorous debate etched deeply into Simmel’s cross-Atlantic translation into American sociology (and therefore not insignificant on shaping cross-field perceptions of sociology as “science”). Historically, this has found proponents of a middle-range application of form set against those who appeal to a more diffuse concern with the status of form. The debate has proven contentious enough, including at least one occasion of translation/retranslation of terminology from Simmel’s work. Robert Merton retranslated the German term ubersehbar to mean “visible to” (in the sentence from “The Nobility” [or Aristocracy”] discussion in Soziologie: “If it is to be effective as a whole, the aristocratic group must be “visible to” [ubersehbar] every single member of it. Each element must be personally acquainted with every other”) instead of what Kurt Wolff had originally translated as “surveyable by.” For various reasons, “visible to” carried far less of a “phenomenological penumbra” and fit with Merton’s interest (e.g. disciplinary position-taking) in structure, but arguably did not match Simmel’s own interest in finding the “vital conditions of an aristocracy” (see Jaworski 1990).

More recently, a kind of detente has emerged between the two sides. To the degree that there is any concern for the status of “form” itself, formal sociology has taken on board what is arguably the most thoroughgoing defense of Simmel’s “phenomenology” to date: the philosopher Gary Backhaus’ 1999 argument for Simmel’s “eidetic social science.” Backhaus reads Simmel with the help of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and therefore reads him against the grain of what the philosophically-minded had conventionally read as Simmel’s more straightforward neo-Kantianism. In part, this detente with phenomenology has been done because Backhaus made it easy to do. His reading does not require that formal sociology do anything that would deviate from network analysis’ own bracketing of the content of social ties from the formal pattern of social ties. His reading of Simmel also remains compatible with a pluralist/pragmatist application of form.

The purpose of this post is threefold: (1) to question that the status of Simmel’s “form” is philosophical and therefore capable of being resolved into either a phenomenology or neo-Kantianism; (2) to situate Simmel as part of a lost 19th century interscience (volkerpsychologie) that, instead of philosophical, potentially makes “form” cognitive in a surprisingly contemporary way; and (3) to perhaps in the process rejuvenate theoretical interest in the status of “form” separate from its application.

Backhaus (1999) argued that Simmel’s formal sociology has an “affinity with” the phenomenology of Husserl, in particular the intentional relationality of mental acts, or the structures of pure consciousness (eides) that, in Simmel’s case, apply to forms of association. Instead of identifying empirical patterns or correlations, formal sociology registers the “cognition of an eidetic structure” (e.g. of “competition,” “conflict,” or “marriage”) (Backhaus 273). Like Husserl’s phenomenology, Simmel identifies these structures as transcendent in relation to particular, sensible and empirical instantiations; but he also does not suggest that forms are “empirical universals” that do not vary according to their instantiations or are not independent from them. If that were the case, then formal sociology would be an empirical science with a “body of collective positive content” that predetermines what can and cannot be present in a specific empirical setting and therefore what counts as having a “legitimate epistemic status” (such as the causes and effects of conflict). Simmel’s emphasis, by contrast, focuses on the analysis of form as it exhibits a “necessary structure” and allows the empirical “given” to appear as it does (Backhaus 264).

More generally, Backhaus concludes as follows:

The attempt to fit Simmel’s a priori structures of the forms of association into a Kantian formal a priori is not possible. Both … interactional and cognitive structures characterize the objects of sociological observation and are not structures inherent to the subjective conditions of the observer (Backhaus 262).

Backhaus’ argument here has given a certain license to formal sociology to spread beyond the friendly confines of network analysis. That spread is contingent on finding forms “not constituted by transactions but instead [giving] form to transactions—because they posit discrete, pregiven, and fixed entities that exist outside of the material plane prior to their instantiation” (Erikson 2013: 225). To posit these entities does not require finding a cognitive structure for the purposes of meaningful synthesis (in Kantian pure cognition). Simmel refers to forms of sociation as instead “[residing] a priori in the elements themselves, through which they combine, in reality, into the synthesis, society” (1971: 38).

So here is the puzzle. If we follow Backhaus’ lead and not read forms of sociation as Kantian categories, then we commit (eo ipso) to a priori elements as part of social relations, not simply in faculties of reason. How is that possible? Backhaus interprets this as being equivalent to the material a priori proposed by Husserl, in which forms of sociation are analogous to intentional objects (1999: 262). In principle, there is much to recommend this argument, not least that it resonates with Simmel’s methodological pluralism vis-a-vis form (Levine 1998). However, the best that Backhaus can do to support a Husserl/Simmel connection is to say that Simmel’s thought has an “affinity with” Husserl’s phenomenology. As he writes elsewhere:

 Simmel was neither collaborator nor student of Husserl, and Simmel’s works appear earlier than the Husserlian influenced philosophers who were to become the first generation phenomenologists. Based on the supposition that Simmel’s later thought does parallel Husserl’s, can it be said that Simmel was coming to some of the same conclusions as Husserl, but yet did not recognize that what he was doing was unfolding an emergent philosophical orientation? An affirmative answer appears plausible. Yet, it is likely that Husserl was an influence on Simmel, without receiving public acknowledgement, since Simmel infrequently cites other thinkers within the body of his texts or within his limited use of footnotes (2003: 223-224).

And yet there is no available evidence (to date) that can document a direct influence of Husserl’s phenomenology on Simmel’s theory of forms (and/or vice versa). Beyond this, the timelines for such an influence do not exactly match, although Simmel and Husserl were contemporaries and, by all accounts, friends. While they did exchange letters, of the ones that survive there is (at least according to one interpretation) nothing of “philosophical value” in them (Staiti 2004: 173; though see Goodstein 2017: 18n9).  Simmel’s concern with “psychology” long predates the publication of Husserl’s Logical Investigations in 1900-01. Simmel’s Philosophy of Money was published around the same time (1900) and marked his most extensive engagement with formal sociology by that point (as Simmel called it, “the first work … that is really my work”). Husserl, however, does not discuss the material a priori in Logical Investigations. In fact, the key source for Husserl’s claims about it doesn’t appear until much later: his 1919-1927 Natur und Geist lectures (Staiti 2004: chap 5).  While Husserl does discuss “eidetic ontologies” in the first volume of Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy (1912), written during Husserl’s tenure at the University of Gottingen (1901-1916), it seems relevant that Simmel’s two key discussions of “form” (in the Levine reader: “How is Society Possible?” and “The Problem of Sociology”) are both found in Simmel’s 1908 Soziologie: Untersuchungen uber die Formen der Vergesellschaftung and draw from material that appears much earlier (Goodstein 2017: 66).

None of this omits or definitively puts to rest an influence of Husserl on Simmel that, as Backhaus suggests, goes uncited and cannot be traced through published work. All of these details of a connection still without an authoritative answer makes Goodstein (2017: 18n9) propose  tracking down the personal and intellectual relationship between Husserl and Simmel as a “good dissertation topic.” At the very least, this suggests that there might be more to the story apropos the status of “form” than we understand at this point and which is enough to reopen a (seemingly) closed case on which formal sociology (at least partially) rests, making this about a lot more than just an obscure footnote in the boring annals of sociology. It also seems relevant to emphasize a possible different reason why Husserl’s eidos and Simmel’s forms seem so similar, but in fact are not.

There is a definite parallel between Husserl and Simmel in that they both took positions against experimental psychology at the time. However, to assume that this means they both took the same position (which, in this case, would be one that Husserl would be credited with making, and which was against “psychologism” in toto) could make the most sense in retrospect only because the historical context has not yet been thoroughly described enough to allow us to see a different position available at the time, one whose content could be described (in the negative) as not experimental psychology, not phenomenology and not descriptive psychology. On these terms, this remains effectively a non-position in the present-day disciplinary landscape, with experimental psychology, phenomenology and descriptive psychology (qua culture) all being more or less still recognizable between now and then. This is only true, however, if we omit a nascent position (still) to be made now, possibly as cognitive social science (see Lizardo 2014), and which was available then as volkerpsychologie.

All of this suggests contextual reasons not to settle for reading Simmel as a phenomenologist. What I want to propose is that there are also further biographical reasons only recently come to light. Elizabeth Goodstein points in the direction with her insight that when Simmel uses the term “‘a priori … this usage … extends the notion of epistemological prerequisites to include their cultural-psychological and sociological formation [which] had its intellectual roots in Volkerpsychologie” (Goodstein 2017: 65; see also Frisby 1984). Goodstein here draws from the late German scholar Klaus Kohnke in what is arguably the most authoritative source on Simmel’s early influences: Kohnke’s untranslated Der junge Simmel in Theoriebeziehungen und sozialen Bewegungen (1996). Goodstein interprets this reading of Simmel’s a priori (both non-Kantian and non-phenomenological) as “[recognizing] the constructive role of culture and narrative framework in constituting and maintaining knowledge practices” (65). Even this is not completely satisfactory, however, as Kohnke (1990) himself suggests by observing the direct influence of volkerpsychologie on Simmel’s appropriation of two of its major themes—“condensation” and “apperception”—which can be categorized as “cultural” (in any contemporary meaning of the word) only very partially (see also Frisby 1984).

So where are we? Simmel’s a priori is essential to formal sociology, but it is not Kantian. We also have little reason to believe that is phenomenological, though this currently provides its best defense. It also cannot be translated as cultural, at least not in a contemporary sense. What we are left with is the influence of volkerpsychologie as part of Simmel’s intellectual history.

We are helped in defining volkerpsychologie by the fact that it has recently become a topic of conversation among historians of science (see Hopos Spring 2020). This interest has been piqued by a recognition of volkerpsychologie as a kind of interscientific space in the developing universe of the human sciences in the 19th century. Specifically, it was not experimental psychology (Wilhelm Wundt) and not descriptive psychology (Wilhelm Dilthey). In the latter sense, it was not an antidote to experimentalism and did not center around “understanding.” In the former sense, it promoted an explanatory framework but outside of the laboratory. Officially, Volkerpsychologie was initiated by the philosophers and philologists Moritz Lazarus and Heymann Steinthal in the mid-19th century. When Simmel entered Berlin University in 1876, his initial interest was history, studying with Theodor Mommsen. His interests soon shifted to psychology, however, and Lazarus became his main teacher.

The subsequent influence of Lazarus and Steinthal on Simmel is clear. Much of Simmel’s initial work in the early 1880s (including his rejected dissertation on music; Simmel [1882] 1968) was published in the journal that Lazarus and Steinthal founded and edited: Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft (Reiners 2020). Simmel sent his essay (1892) on a nascent sociologie (“Das probleme der sociologie”) to Lazarus on his seventieth birthday, adding a letter in which Simmel wrote that the essay constituted “the most recent result of lines of thought that you first awakened in me. For however, divergent my subsequent development became, I shall nonetheless never forget that before all others, you directed me to the problem of the superindividual and its depths, whose investigation will probably fill out the productive time that remains to me” (quoted in Goodstein 2017: 65). In 1891, Steinthal directed readers of the journal that replaced Volkerpsychologie (Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde) to the “work of Georg Simmel” in order to see how volkerpsychologie and the nascent field of sociology both search for “the psychological processes of human society” (Kusch 2019: 264).

If Simmel was influenced by volkerpsychologie, he was far from alone (Klautke 2013). Durkheim was familiar with the volkerpsychologie, particularly the work of Lazarus and Steinthal. In fact, he cites (1995/1912:12n14) volkerpsychologie in the Elementary Forms as “putting the hypothesis first for “mental constitution [as depending] at least in part upon historical, hence social factors … Once this hypothesis is accepted, the problem of knowledge can be framed in new terms.” Durkheim references the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie and mentions Steinthal in particular. Franz Boas (1904), meanwhile, gives “special mention” to volkerpsychologie as being a major influence on the history of anthropology for proposing “psychic actions that take place in the individual as a social unit,” also referencing the work of Steinthal (520). For his part, Bronislaw Malinowski had studied with Wundt in Leipzig and started an (unfinished) dissertation in volkerpsychologie (Forster 2010: 204ff). Boas and Malinowski provide a direct link from Lazarus and Steinhal’s volkerpsychologie to the “culture concept” (see Stocking 1966; Kalmar 1987). Mikhail Bakhtin also mentions Lazarus and Steinhal’s volkerpsychologie as an influence on his definition of dialogics and speech genres or “problems of types of speech.” Volkerpsychologie anticipates “a comparable way of conceptualizing collective consciousness” (see Reitan 2010).

This historiography thus finds the influence of volkerpsychologie on a variety of recognized disciplines and influences that reach into the present. More recent efforts are able to distinguish that influence from the influence of descriptive psychology, which is well-documented. Volkerpsychologie constituted a space of possibility in human science that did not settle into the disciplinary arrangement of the research university that still persists largely unchanged into the present (Clark 2008). As Goodstein (2017) notes, Simmel himself mirrors this with an oeuvre that remains unrecognizable from any single disciplinary guise. If Simmel did not identify with volkerpsychologie when certain bureaucratic requirements required him to declare a scholarly identity, this was at least partially because of the association of volkerpsychologie with scholars of Jewish heritage (including Lazarus and Steinthal), combined with prevailing anti-Semitism, with which Simmel was all too familiar (Kusch 2019: 267ff). Volkerpsychologie itself would later be terminologically appropriated by the Nazified “volk” which further contributed to the erasure of its 19th century history.

The purpose of recounting this history (obscure no doubt) is to perhaps rejuvenate interest in Simmel’s formal approach as more appropriately situated within a disciplinary space that anticipates cognitive social science. The ramifications of this are far beyond the scope of this post to draw out in sufficient detail. That will be saved for a later post (maybe). To close, I’ll just sketch one possible implication, using Omar’s recent distinction between “cognitive” and “cultural kinds.”

To make that distinction requires some way of distinguishing the cognitive from the cultural, i.e. giving it a “mark.” The philosopher Mark Rowlands (2013: 212) attempts this as follows: what marks the cognitive is “(1) the manipulation and transformation of information-bearing structures, where this (2) has the proper function of making available, either to the subject or to subsequent processing operations, information that was hitherto unavailable, where (3) this making available is achieved by way of the production, in the subject of the process, of a representational state and (4) the process belongs to a cognitive subject.” Rowlands subscribes to extended, enactive, embodied and embedded (4Es) cognition in making this argument, in which the key claim is not about “the mind” but about “mental phenomena.”

The proposal here is that a volkerpsychologie reading could be more accurate in situating “form” as having something more like a “mark of the cognitive” than the material a priori. For his part, Backhaus (1999) is careful to bracket the level of eidos from what he calls psychological associations and empirical universals. Perhaps, what would be identified as form could be empirically identified as carrying a cognitive content as “information-bearing structures.” This suggests an alternate way of finding a priori conditions in social relations. The problem is that this would commit a far more egregious “reading into” Simmel than reading Husserl into him. Any such effort would  erase the historicism that guides my critique of Backhaus.

However, to the degree that volkerpsychologie is situated in a similar disciplinary space as cognitive social science (akin to 4Es cognition) this might lessen the violation. One historical effort (Kusch 2019) reads much of the original German-language research, published alongside Simmel’s own, and finds general commitments to relativism and materialism, meaning that (following the “strong” version of Lazarus and Steinthal) volkerpsychologie finds apperceptions “compressed” in even unproblematic forms of consciousness and locates these in an “objective spirit” as language, institutions and tools. Stronger versions also took umbrage with a normative application of volkerpsychologie because this arbitrarily bracketed an explanatory focus that endorsed only a relativist metaphysics (to an empirical context). Stronger versions even took a de facto Kantian critique a step further in attempting psychological explanations for what could be posited through logical inference (like freedom of the will). This did not mean resorting to cultural explanation, however. In fact, Dilthey distanced himself from volkerpsychologie because of its explanatory thrust. He developed his more “descriptive” approach (in part) in opposition to this. Strong versions of volkerpsychologie attempted generative explanations of intuitions derived from an original (empirical) context.

If there is any legitimate parallel between volkerpsychologie and formal sociology, then “form” could be given an entirely different treatment: conveying cognitive kinds that, among other things, allow for instances of particular cultural kinds.



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Staiti, Andrea (2004). Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology: Nature, Sprit and Life. Cambridge U Press.

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