The Metropolis and Mental Life

by Matthew Wilsey

Although Georg Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life” is a short work, its impact has been profound. Georg Simmel was born on March 1, 1858 in what is now the middle of downtown Berlin.[1] Simmel’s proximity to the metropolis was certainly consequential, as the effects of such an upbringing are reflected in later works. With the help of Julius Friedländer, a wealthy family friend, Simmel moved into academia; however, he was never able to advance significantly or garner academic relevance, even though he had the backing of important colleagues, including Max Weber.[2] Despite this slight, Simmel’s considerable contributions to sociology have come to be recognized and fully appreciated.[3] Simmel died on September 28, 1918, shortly before the end of World War I, but not before leaving a lasting legacy and a collection of work that included Einleitung in die Moralphilosophie, Philosophie des Geldes, and Soziologie.


“The Metropolis and Mental Life” focuses on elucidating the “modern aspects of contemporary life with reference to their inner meaning.”[4] Simmel accomplishes this goal by, first, noting the adjustments and modifications made by people in response to external forces, and second, by detailing how social structures prescribe certain relationships. In the course of this investigation, several notable themes of urban living are illuminated.

Metropolitan Individuality

Simmel begins “The Metropolis and Mental Life” by discussing one of the most important ideas in the work, namely that urban conditions necessitate the creation of a “protective organ.” Due to the intensification of external and internal sensual stimuli in the city as compared to a rural setting, the metropolis fosters a situation where one must buffer him or herself from a constantly changing environment. This protection manifests itself in the rise of logic and intellect. In other words, life becomes matter-of-fact, with little consideration to emotional concerns. This intellectualism defines life in the city, and sharply contrasts with the emphasis on personal relationships characteristic of smaller settings. As Simmel writes,

Instead of reacting emotionally, the metropolitan type reacts primarily in a rational manner . . . Thus the reaction of the metropolitan person to those events is moved to the sphere of mental activiy that is least sensitive and furthest removed from the depths of personality (12).

The development of a protective, rational barrier has a profound impact on individuals living in a metropolis. In a word, they become indifferent. Simmel writes, “There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which is so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook.”[5] This “blasé outlook” is the consequence of the constant bombardment of the intellect, and leads to the creation of a populace that is largely apathetic. City life is full of new stimulations occurring at various frequencies and intensities, which excite the nerves to highest level of reactivity. However, prolonged exposure causes a sensory overload and exhausts energy sources. The resulting inability to react to new stimuli with appropriate levels of energy defines the blasé mind-set and is unique to metropolitan society.

In addition to the blasé outlook, several other behaviors manifest themselves in an urban setting, namely reservation and freedom. The social attitude of people living in cities can often be designated as one of hesitation or reluctance – an unavoidable result of building a protective organ in an effort to reduce the number of possible human interactions. This is in stark contrast to the familiarity and vibrancy that people from small-towns often greet one another, which is facilitated by years of recognition and knowledge. However, in the city, most personal encounters are fleeting and not worth a significant investment of time or emotion. Thus a characteristic cold and unfriendly stereotype defines people living in a metropolis. This reservation leads to another characteristic of the city, the large degree of personal freedom. As an individual in an urban setting, one is freed from the kinds of prejudices and boundaries that one might feel in political or religious communities. This urban freedom is clearly illustrated when juxtaposed to rural life, where an urbanite might feel trapped or suffocated.

There are several ties to modernity in Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” In fact, the first sentence of the essay addresses the topic, as Simmel notes that our greatest struggles are derived from our quest to maintain our personalities: “The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life.”[6] This idea is supported by Deena and Michael Weinstein, co-authors of Postmodern(ized) Simmel. They argue that the mental phenomena of the metropolis are mechanisms utilized by people to maintain their individuality: “The mental life of the metropolis is a series of compensations for the inadequacy of the objective culture to the individual’s subjective demand for an integral personality.”[7] Thus indifference, reservation, and rationality are all methods that people use to hold onto their unique personalities against the pull of the objective lifestyle that dominates city life. The authors continue,

Rather than enforcing a commitment to a common life upon one another, the participants in the metropolitan arena enforce a distance between each other that allows them to conduct their segmental and transitory affairs, and to preserve their unique inwardness.[8] 

Objective and Subjective Spirits

In “The Metropolis and the Mental Life,” Simmel also discusses how the metropolitan lifestyle leads to the neglect and degradation of the personality. As Simmel writes, “The development of modern culture is characterized by the predomination of what one can call the objective spirit over the subjective . . . the growth of which is followed only imperfectly and with an even greater lag by the intellectual development of the individual.”[9] In other words, the metropolitan lifestyle, with its ever increasing emphasis and concern with accomplishments, rationality, and the accruement of knowledge, has contributed to a decline in culture. In striving for monetary gain, people become ever more one-sided or one-dimensional and ignore extracurricular activities that could potentially enrich their lives. As a consequence of this behavior, personalities fall into disrepair. This situation is only exacerbated by the division of labor – as one is reduced a single entity, a negligible quantity in a complex system – and the characteristic urban mental phenomena that have already been documented. The consequence of this specialization is the transformation of a society from a subjective existence to one more objective in nature.

The handling of the clash between objective and subjective culture marks “The Metropolis and the Mental Life” as modern. In other words, the struggle and inherent tension between individualism and the metropolis is innately a modern issue. The Weinsteins write, “’The Metropolis’ is the story of how the development of modern social relations, culminating in the site of the metropolis, has deprived the individual of any intelligible or meaningful unity to what Albert Camus called ‘the absurd.'”[10] In Simmel’s essay, the social structure of the metropolis is responsible for this conflict.
The Weinsteins continue,

Objective culture explodes to the point at which all imaginable human capacities have been exteriorized and crystallized into differential culture complexes . . . and each individual is left free to construct whatever personal integrity he can achieve out of the objectivized fragments of human potential and from his own inward vision.[11]

This sentiment echoes David Frisby, author of Fragments of Modernity, who states, “[Simmel] is led to a theory of cultural alienation which culminates . . . in the inevitable conflict and ever-widening gap between subjective and objective culture, in which individuals are locked within the experience of the eternal present of modernity.”[12] In the discussion of how the structure of the metropolis leads to the devaluation of the subjective and the personality, Simmel is clearly dealing with key issues for modernity.

One feature that further distinguishes Simmel’s essay as modern is the extent to which he stresses the importance of movement – both the movement of ideas and of goods. David Frisby, in another work entitled Simmel and Since: Essays on Georg Simmel’s Social Theory, writes, “What makes Simmel’s analysis of the metropolis so relevant to the study of modernity is its emphasis upon the sphere of circulation and exchange, not merely of money and commodities but also of social groups and individuals.[13] However, this flow and movement doesn’t increase diversity or exposure; rather, it plays a homogenizing role. This is best exemplified in “The Metropolis and Mental Life” when Simmel comments that the money economy and the growth of the division of labor are “levelers” of the subjective and personalities. Frisby continues, “This sphere of circulation and exchange is, however, a sphere in which value differences are often obscured, in which class divisions are rendered opaque and do not always immediately manifest themselves.”[14] This leveling is illustrated when the unique ideas and traditions of diverse groups are hybridized into a single urban way of life. To Frisby, Simmel’s work relates to modernity in that it highlights the consequences the uniformity of cities has on individuals.