Simmel, Durkheim and Ratzenhofer[1]

Arthur F. Bentley


Símmel, Durkheim, and Ratzenhofer show a common concentration of purpose upon a coherent statement of social facts without intrusion of other elements : their philosophical or psychological foundations may be stripped away without hurt to their work. Ratzenhofer's groups, with their interests, represent the activities and energies of society. Durkheim's exteríority and constraint represent the same thing, if taken without an assumed opposition to a posited individual. Simmel's forms give us an actual analysis of the social process more delicate and subtle than ever elsewhere attempted, and need only the transfer of the form from a Euclidean to an Eínsteinian analogy to assume all the energy and activity features of the other two investigators. The practical trend in this direction is seen in culture studies.

Apart from compilers of materials and formal systematizers, whose work is of a lesser order, it seems to me that the three great names of modern sociology are Símmel, Durkheim, and Ratzenhofer.[2] All three of them were independent investigators with a powerful control of material, but the characteristic that unites them and makes them stand out together from all others is their determined struggle to reveal in that material what is its peculiarly and truly social content.


The three men differ much, it is true, in the deliberateness with which they face this question of the peculiarly social, and they differ much in the character of their separate investigations and contributions. They are very far apart, indeed, in the psychological and the methodological foundations which they give their systems. But as one of them, Simmel, has said: "It is indeed true in matters of the mind and spirit that what we so commonly call fundamental is often less firm and solid than the structure erected above it; and for the widest and most difficult problems one may even say that this is always true."[3]

It is not, then, in their scaffoldings, whether of psychology or metaphysics, nor by any electic process, that I shall attempt to unite these men, but rather by striving to show that in the one great essential, the direct visioning of social facts, there is substantial agreement, an agreement which, in the old space-and-time world, might well be overlooked, but which, in the new world of physics, is easy to trace. This quality, then, they have in common, this characteristic which they have sought in society: we cannot call it objectivity—the word is one-sided; nor can we call it positivity—the word is too vague; perhaps for the moment we may call it observational coherence in the material, the social, facts, permitting a unified study of it in its own right.

Ratzenhofer's contribution is the systematic working out of social evolution and social process in terms of groups of men interacting on each other as groups rather than as individuals. This group process which he uses we may describe, for lack of a better word, as comparatively concrete, that is, he takes his groups, in a first ,approximation, as so and so many men functioning together.

(252) Ludwig Gumplowicz had preceded Ratzenhofer with his Rassenkampf, which was primarily a theory of the origin of society in tribal warfare and its development through further race struggle. For both men the background was Austria with its race conflicts. Where Gumplowicz, much more concretely still, had seen separate hordes or tribes or races grinding together, Ratzenhofer advanced to describing a similar functional process in all large social operations within a society, including political parties, and beyond to various somewhat hypothetical structures of civilization. His classification of these large social operations, though derived from Schäffle and Spencer, was carefully developed by him in terms of the society around him.

Underlying each such social operation, whether large or small, he placed what he called an "interest." For our view here his great merit is that this interest, this system of interests, though psychologically stated, comes down in practice to be merely another form of statement for the active procedure of the group and the system of groups; a form of statement that emphasizes the living activity side without entanglement with individual psychological factors taken as direct factors of interpretation. For him, therefore, all the energy aspects of the social facts lie directly within those social facts as such, and are not imported to them from outside.

Ratzenhofer felt the need of wide systematizing discussions of his material in connection with all the materials of other sciences; he felt the need of working out a "positive monism" to underlie his sociology. He gave many long years of study to this. His positive monism, interesting and sane as it was, is now only part of the history of an older type of science. His systematic construction cannot last, any more than any systematic sociologies of today can last. More striking discoveries than the tomb of Tut-ankh-amen or the Mongolian nest of ten-million-year-old dinosaur eggs are to be found in the sphere of man-society;[4] and present systematic constructions must all stand ready for radical alteration from decade to decade, if not from year to year.

The credit to Ratzenhofer is for his group process, his vision-

(253) -ing of it as activity involving its own energy, which he stated in terms of social interests, and his refusal to let any other kind of psychic factor distort his work or stop it from going as far as his powers in his own day would take it.

With Durkheim, who rejected systematizations as impracticable for the present, we get a closer and more intimate view of the man-society process. But at the same time we have it presented to us as over and against a posited individual. The energy appears as the constraint which this exterior society imposes upon the individual.

His viewpoint may be compressed into the following sentences: The social fact is a social thing (chose). It is characterized by being exterior to the individual consciousness; and, again, by exercising constraint upon the individual consciousness. Social facts must be explained only by other social facts, and never by reference to individual psychologic facts.

His personal investigations went into the division of labor in society, with emphasis upon such factors as the volume and density of the society; into suicide as a social fact amenable to social control; and into the characteristics of the religious life as shown in its earliest forms. Under his influence his school has produced many works of great interest and importance.

As he progressed he elaborated a psychology, both individual and social, to provide him his background, his contact with the rest of science. This psychology posits a social mind on the analogy of individual minds, but more vivid, more real, than individual minds. Most psychic content is for him described as in the social mind; very little as in the individual mind. In pursuance of such study he has tried to show how the concepts of space and time and force are socially constructed, and with them all other social concepts, thus setting forth what has been called a sociological theory of knowledge. Some of his followers have carried this treatment still farther, one of them going so far as to argue that memory is itself socially produced. As with Ratzenhofer, we may strip away his scaffolding of social mind and psychology and hold to the working meanings of his description of the social fact, these being his true scientific delivery to us.


Durkheim gives us, then, the following: The social fact is something for scientific study in its own direct description. His terms, "exteriority" and "constraint," serve to indicate this directness and immediacy of the social fact, though we would use other terms today because we do not need any longer to set it off over and' against an individual consciousness posited as observing it and being affected by it. The meanings of each phase of social fact must be sought in other phases of social fact, and along with meanings, all references, forces, values. He gives us this, not as a dictum, but in large results by the use of his method.

Pass now to Símmel, again, as with the others, to take from him not any features of his philosophy or incidental attitudes, but to secure his working attitude as perhaps the keenest and most searching investigator society has yet had, undoubtedly the one with the greatest yield of permanently applicable knowledge. With society concretely, in the sense of a mass of men here and a mass there, as Ratzenhofer looked at it, Símmel has little concern. With Durkheim's opposition to the posited individual he has no concern at all. But he is vastly more intimate, more subtle than any other investigator has been, in catching the ínterínfluencings of social men. He seeks that which is peculiarly social in society (Vergesellschaftung). His separation is between the content and the form in society. The form is what he studies. The form is what is peculiarly social. And these remarkable studies that he has made of social form are what seem to me to contain today our most thoroughly secure knowledge of society. They deal with superiority and subordination, competition, imitation, division of labor, party formation, class formation, representation, the ones, the twos, the threes, and the manys, inner and outer determination, compared as they appear in this country or that, in this kind of process (economic, religious, political, etc.), or that, with respect to the influence of numbers, size of the society, with respect to secrecy or publicity, or in a thousand other aspects. His largest single study, that of money, concerns itself not merely with value and material in economic service, but with all the connections of money in its various forms with religion, science, art, public life, personal freedom, and types of culture.


His own foundation of psychology is much more exact than that of either Ratzenhofer or Durkheim, but by its very clarity it brings out its values for ready judgment under the new science which has arisen since Simmel's death. All the material of both psychological and sociological study, he holds, is psychic. Looked at by psychology, it is all individual psychology; though within this individual psychology we may mark off, if we wish, a special limited portion which we may call social psychology, namely, that part which deals with the technique of the influencing of one individual by another under social conditions. But when the same material is looked at by sociology, where content and configuration of the psychic facts is in question, we find our facts vastly transcending the individual. State, law, religion, morals run far beyond the individual in any definition we can give them. Yet they do not need a psychic bearer, a social mind, a social person. They are facts, social facts, to be taken as such and studied in their social forms, the network of these forms giving us the science of sociology.

One thing Símmel seems to lack is the forcefulness, the energy, pointed to by Ratzenhofer's interests, by Durkheim's exterior constraint. He seems to have only one weakness, and this he brings out so clearly himself that a hunt for criticism is needless. His forms he compares to form in geometry, in Euclid. He uses the illustration so frequently that he may perhaps be said to have justified his search for social forms by analogies with geometric forms. Today, however, when Euclidean geometry is absorbed into physics, for Simmel's sociology what is manifestly necessary is that its statement, too, pass into one of energy, of activity, or of interests or pressures, if these last terms happen to be used without false meanings. In his daybook, found after his death, Símmel had written: "I shall die without heirs of the spirit. So be ít."[5] But he has left us, nevertheless, the greatest heritage of all.

One cannot make a synthesis of selected elements from the life-work of these three men. Much less can one combine their underlying philosophical structures. But one has no need of those

(256) underlying structures—the least important part, as Simmel said, of all difficult investigation—in order to see their likeness in point of view toward what really is of importance, the handling of the social facts themselves.

Ratzenhofer gave us the groups of men, in terms of interests, now appearing as definable activities across society. Durkheim gave us the independence and forcefulness of the social facts, which we need no longer contrast with a posited individual. Simmel made the intimate study of the forms of activity, lacking just the little touch of groupal forcefulness which falls to it simply, inevitably, from the new physical science since Einstein. There we have in very truth the appearing sociology, coherent in its own field.

Does it seem unfair to select these three men for praise in this way, ignoring elements in their work that have been criticized in the work of others (for example, Durkheim's occasional slíppings into use of factors from individual psychology, which theoretically he condemned), while at the same time failing to recognize strivings similar to theirs in many investigators and failing, at the same time, to bring into account all the great progress through three generations toward direct social statement, upon the basis of which they did their work? It is not here a question of merit, or reward, or fame, but only of the valuation of achievements in sociological investigation as it is before us today. I have no doubt but that the great majority of investigators of society have longed and striven for the same unified vision of social fact, the same coherence of observation. The difference is that these three men have done their great work under continuing standards of such coherence. No others have pressed so hard, or with such success, toward the goal.

For that field of anthropological study known as culture, a word, however, should be said. Here, in the description of the facts, we find more progress, more unity, than anywhere else. Several recent works attain a very great unity of statement, and one can almost see, in every case of a slipping toward other interpretation, that it comes in at a point merely where information fails. It serves to tide over a bad moment. But none of these works ventures directly into the theoretical field which is here in question.


  1. A chapter from a recent volume entitled "Relativity in Man and Society" (New York: Putnam, 1926. Reviewed in this issue). The purpose of the book is to show that, in entire harmony with the new attitude of physical science, a direct statement of the facts of society may be attained, not only without the use of the matter-mind and conscious-unconscious bifurcations, but also without the use of the man-society bifurcation, or of the actor-environment bifurcation, as this latter is explicitly postulated, for example, in the recent behaviorist psychology. The proposed form of statement does not present itself as a substitute for any of the above bifurcations in their particular fields, but only as a wholly legitimate and practical point of approach in its own field.
  2. If this chapter had to do with the creators of the science of sociology, perhaps the name of Karl Marx should be put at the head of the list. To my regret, I am not sufficiently well acquainted with his work to untangle his theoretical from his practical achievement and gain an opinion. Moreover, I am not concerned with any estimate of permanent importance or place in history, a form of judgment for which I have no aptitude. It ís here merely a question of getting the men who, in the last generation, have sought and built a theoretical unity of scientific social study. The name of Wundt is definitely excluded, for while Durkheim set up a social mind comparable to Wundt's type of folk-soul, with Durkheim it was merely a question of positing this social mind, much as Newton felt compelled, for technical personal satisfaction, to posit absolute space and absolute time, without actually using them in his system. With Wundt it was otherwise.
  3. Soziologie, p. 17. "Es ist ja in geistigen Dingen nichts ganz Seltenes—ja auf den allgemeinsten und tiefsten Problemgebieten etwas Durchgehendes—dass dasjeníge, was wir mit unvermeidlichen Gleichnis das Fundament nennen müssen, nicht so fest steht, wie der darauf errichtete Oberbau."
  4.  The term "man-society" is used merely to indicate the whole given situation, and to avoid distracting attention to either side of the bifurcation.
  5. Logos, VIII, 121: "Ich weiss dass ich ohne geistigen Erben sterben werde : und es ist gut so.

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