Simmel as a Theorist of Habit7 min read

The Journal of Classical Sociology has recently made available online a new translation, by John D. Boy, of Simmel’s classic essay on “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit” (better known to sociologists and urban studies people in previous translations as “The Metropolis and Mental Life”). Boy has an intriguing argument, in the translation’s introductory remarks, for why returning to Simmel’s original “spiritual” language and moving away from the “psychological” language of early translators (e.g., the German “geist” could be translated as either “spirit” or “mind”) is more faithful to Simmel’s original intellectual context and aims.

Here I would like to focus on a neglected aspect of the essay, namely, the implicit theory of habit (and its relation to the intellect and emotions) that Simmel deploys in the introductory paragraphs to set up the main argument that follows. Thus, this post can be read as a companion to previous disquisitions on habit and habit theory in this blog (see here, here, and here) and as a supplement to Charles Camic’s (1986) earlier point about the centrality of the concept of habit for most of the classical social theorists in sociology (Simmel is not one of the theorists treated at length in Camic’s classic paper) and the related story of how the idea was excised from the sociological vocabulary in the post-Parsonian period. In fact, concerning Simmel’s essay on the metropolis, in particular, it bears mentioning that one of the very earliest works influenced by Simmel’s approach (published in American Journal of Sociology in 1912) took the title “The Urban Habit of Mind” (Woolston, 1912).

Simmel on Habit and Metropolitan Life

Simmel argues that the rapid succession of novel and unpredictable stimuli in the city breaks previous habits of sensation developed in a non-urban context. Therefore, Simmel subscribes to the idea that habits are more easily developed whenever people are exposed to repetitive, internally consistent stimuli. In the more predictable non-urban setting, where each new sensation is a lot like the previous one, people can develop habits of sensibility that render them less susceptible to experience sensations in a powerful way. Simmel thus subscribes to the psychological principle that, as we develop habits of sensibility via the exposure to repetitive sensations, these fade from consciousness: “Lasting sensations, slight differences and their succession according to the regularity of habit require less consciousness” (Simmel, 2020, p. 6, emphasis added).

The city disrupts this equilibrium. It does so primarily by increasing the novelty and the unpredictability of sensory stimulation. This “intensification of nervous stimulation” is brought about “by the rapid and constant chance of external and internal sensations” (ibid, italics in original). Thus, the converse psychological principle applies: If habits are created via exposure to repetition, then exposure to novelty and non-repetition increases “consciousness” (which Simmel conceptualizes here as opposed to habit). For Simmel, people “are creatures of difference; their consciousness is stimulated by the difference between the current sensation and the ones preceding it” (ibid, emphasis added).

The disruption of habits of sensation in the city via the intensification of sensory stimulation serves as the primary psychological contrast to small-town life:

In producing these psychological conditions in every crossing of the street and in the tempo and multiplicity of its economic, occupational and social life, the metropolis creates a strong contrast to small-town and country life with its slower, more habitual, more regular rhythm in the very sensory foundation of the life of our souls, due to the far larger segment of our consciousness it occupies given our constitution as creatures of difference (ibid, boldface added).

This sets up a contrast, Simmel argues, between the calculative intellect (which Simmel associates with non-habitual cognition) and more spontaneous affect and emotion, which Simmel associates with the “more unconscious” strata of the psyche. In this way, small-town life “is founded upon relationships of disposition and emotion that have their root in the more unconscious strata of the soul and are more likely to grow out of the quiet regularity of uninterrupted habits” (ibid, emphasis added).

Thus, Simmel makes another equation here, linking habit to emotion, affect, and drives (and other residents of a more vitalistic, “dynamic” unconscious) and habit, which is separated from mental functions associated with intellect, which, for Simmel, are the more “transparent and conscious higher strata” of our inner life. This dualistic approach to habit, which distinguishes it from higher intellectual functions, seems to owe a lot to Maine de Biran’s early nineteenth-century reflections on the subject, which also made such a distinction between habit and the intellect (de Biran, 1970; see the discussion in Sinclair, 2011), one that would be criticized by Félix Ravaisson (2008).

Simmel’s reasoning and series of dualistic linkages here lead him to an odd, and seldom noted, conclusion: People who live in the city, insofar as they are forced to use “the intellect” to perform actions that would otherwise (in a non-urban context) be driven by habit, are therefore less “habit-driven” than non-urban people! This what is behind his famous “protective organ” argument, whose linkage to the habit/intellect contrast has not been noted before. For Simmel, city dwellers have to develop a way to deal with the sensory barrage in a way that prevents them from “reacting according to…[their] disposition.” Instead, “the typical metropolitan person relies primarily on…[their] intellect” (ibid). And “this intellectuality, which we have recognized as a defense of subjective life against the assault of the metropolis, becomes entangled with numerous other phenomena” (ibid).

Conclusion

The phenomena that Simmel went on to link to urban life, inclusive of the money economy, the blasé attitude, individualism, liberty, the division of labor, cosmopolitanism, fashion, and the rest, are well-known to students of Simmel’s foundational essay. Less well-known, however, are how the core premises of the piece are built on Simmel’s much-neglected (but explicitly laid out) assumptions of how the habit links to the intellect, consciousness, sensation, and emotion.

References

Camic, C. (1986). The Matter of Habit. The American Journal of Sociology, 91(5), 1039–1087.

de Biran, P. M. (1970). The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking. Greenwood.

Ravaisson, F. (2008). Of Habit. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Simmel, G. (2020). The metropolis and the life of spirit. Journal of Classical Sociology, 1468795X20980638.

Sinclair, M. (2011). Ravaisson and the Force of Habit. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 49(1), 65–85.

Woolston, H. B. (1912). The Urban Habit of Mind. The American Journal of Sociology, 17(5), 602–614.

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