III. Religion and Modernity

Religion and Monetary Culture in the Sociology of Georg Simmel

Dominika Motak


Georg Simmel is widely recognised as a prominent turn-of-the-century German philosopher of culture and one of the founding fathers of sociology, but he could quite properly also be described as a classical theorist of religion. Despite his eminent position in the history of Western thought, Simmel's work on religion continues to be neglected - especially by comparison with that of Durkheim and Weber (Lechner 1990: 169). His concept of religion was not yet reflected in its full complexity, but was only occasionally referred to in the discussions concerning particular topics (Krech 1998: 1), and the task of incorporating it into the contemporary academic discourse remains unfulfilled. I will try to demonstrate that this still not properly appreciated part of Simmel's legacy is most intimately connected with the two much better known areas of his research: monetary culture and general sociology. A rough sketch of Simmel's concept of religion sheds light on Simmel's theory of society and allows to question the prevailing view that the Simmelian 'impressionist' sociology stands in sharp contrast to the classical French 'positivist' tradition of sociological inquiry, as epitomized by Emile Durkheim. The main subject of this chapter - Simmel's thesis on homology of money, society and the idea of God - provides a good argument that, even many decades later, Robert A. Nisbet's (1959: 81) appraisal of Simmel as the most relevant of all the pioneers of sociological reflexion still holds true.

Money/Religion Complex

The thesis on homology of money and the idea of God is a recurrent theme in Simmel's writings. In his philosophically informed sociology money serves as a symbol of modernity, expressing its contradictory character. Moreover, being a symbol of unity, money has remarkable affinity with the Judeo-Christian concept of God. At the same time, God constitutes a conceptual equivalent of society; and a notion of society shares certain characteristics with money. All these terms - money, God, society and modernity - are thus inextricably intertwined. It should come as no surprise, then, that in Simmel's eyes there is at least a kernel of truth in the lament that 'money has become the God of our time'. As we shall see, Alain Deneault was right in saying that 'Simmel does more than just reproduce the worn-out money-God metaphor' (Deneault 2006: 164).

Simmel's serious academic interest in monetary culture lasted more than a decade and may be tracked back to his essay of 1889 entitled On the Psychology of Money (see Simmel 1997b). The next evidence of his comittment to the study of money was Money in Modern Culture (Das Geld in der modernen Kultur), published in 1896 (see Simmel 1997a). This text introduced some of the central themes of Philosophy of Money (1900) - Simmel's opus magnum which, according to Hans Blumenberg (1976: 130), ranks among the very few books written after Nietzsche that belong to the Western canon. In the beginning of the twentieth century Simmel was shaping the foundations of an emerging discipline of sociology, at the same time developing a very distinctive framework for the analysis of religion. His explorations into religion, which transcended disciplinary borders of at least three disciplines: philosophy, sociology and psychology, continued for 20 years: from 1898 (when he published the first text devoted explicitly to religion: A Contribution to the Sociology of Religion) until his death in 1918. Religion constituted the main subject of several essays written in this period (Simmel 1997). In 1906 he published his main work on religion -a slim book with a simple title, Religion (an extended edition appeared in 1912). There is also a clear evidence of Simmel's continued commitment to the study of religion in many other writings, including his seminal Philosophy of Money. What is particularly important in our context, every single one of his texts which deals with money discusses its relationship to religion. Religion appears in numerous contexts in Philosophy of Money, wherein also a relationship of money, society and modernity has been elaborated, so this text will be our point of departure.

According to Simmel's own remark in the preface to Philosophy of Money, not a single line of his investigations was meant to be a statement about economics (Simmel 2004: 54). He claimed that 'just as the appearance of a founder of a religion is not simply a religious phenomenon, so the fact that two people exchange their products is not simply an economic fact' (Simmel 2004: 55). Simmel described his intention as an attempt to underpin the historical materialism in such a way that the explanation of culture in terms of economic forms remains preserved, 'while these economic forms themselves are recognised as the result of more profound valuations and psychological or even metaphysical pre-conditions'. He stated that such explanation 'must develop in infinite reciprocity' (Simmel 2004: 56). It is, as we may add, a hermeneutical procedure; it generates a specific circular style of reasoning, consequently applied in his discussion of our main topic (money=society=God=money ... ad infinitum).

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