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Theory, Culture & Society

29(7/8) 78–100
Life, Death and ! The Author(s) 2012
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DOI: 10.1177/0263276411435567

Simmel on the Problem tcs.sagepub.com

of Life Itself
Olli Pyyhtinen
University of Turku, Finland

The article argues for the relevance of Simmel’s life-philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) for
the contemporary thought about life and death. By considering life, paradoxically, at
once as a pre-individual flux of becoming and individuated, Simmel manages to avoid
both reductionism and mysticism. In addition, unlike Deleuze, for example, Simmel
thinks that we can experience and know life only in some individual, actual form, never
in its pure virtuality, as an absolute flow. During the course of examination, Simmel’s
insights will also be discussed in connection with Heidegger. The article maintains that
what remains on the Simmelian side beyond the striking affinities between the two
thinkers is a kind of animal vitality. Though Simmel’s life-philosophy is mainly concerned
with the world-relation of humans, when it comes to death, it places humans on a par
with all living organisms. A death that is immanent in life is appropriate to anything that
is living. Thus the human individual, too, is dying precisely as a living organism, as some-
body that is alive.

death, Deleuze, Heidegger, individuality, life, life-philosophy, Simmel, vitalism

‘Being’ – we have no other way of representing this as ‘living’. –

How can anything dead ‘be’? (Nietzsche, 1964: 582)

In ‘Über einige gegenwärtige Probleme der Philosophie’ (2001b), origi-
nally published in 1912, Simmel proposes that if Greek philosophy was
premised on the notion of substance, which the Middle Ages only gave

Corresponding author:
Olli Pyyhtinen, University of Turku, Finland
Email: olsapy@utu.fi

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Pyyhtinen 79

Christian theological colouring by replacing it with God, and if for

Renaissance thought the decisive form of reality was mechanism, it is
the category of ‘life’ (Leben) that defines the modern era.1 Indeed, in the
early decades of the 20th century, the French vitalism (or ‘Bergsonism’)
and the German Lebensphilosophie movement were among the most
influential philosophies in Europe. In 1916, Simmel estimated that ‘the
concept of life now seems to permeate a multitude of spheres and has
begun to give, as it were, a more unified rhythm to their heartbeat’
(Simmel, 2000b: 197; 1997b: 99).2 Today, after having been soiled –
both rightly and unfairly – by the stain of Nazism for more than half a
century, life-philosophies are back in the guise of Deleuzianism(s), New
Vitalism, and various philosophies of the becoming, for example, that
speak of the world in the language of process, flux, and flow. To these
approaches, the vibrancy of life offers a broad conceptual frame within
which a whole variety of phenomena from labour and capitalism (Hardt
and Negri, 2000; Lazzarato, 1996) to information (Lash, 2005), film
(Mullarkey, 2007), computer viruses (Parikka, 2007) and even matter
(Deleuze and Guattari, 1987; Bennett, 2010) are perceived.
Of course, while being an age-old philosophical question that derives
at the latest from Aristotle, any speculation about ‘life itself’ is immedi-
ately met with extreme difficulties. Life is at the same time both the most
equivocal and elusive of concepts and far too readily reduced to genes,
DNA, or organism, for instance. Accordingly, as argued by Eugene
Thacker (2010: xv), today the notion of life has come to be caught
between scientific reductionism and (quasi-)religious mysticism. Life is
being both increasingly seized by technoscience (for example with scien-
tists exploring the human genome and trying to synthesize and design
life) and fervently defended by religious groups (such as evangelical
Christians and Roman Catholics objecting to abortion and stem cell
research) as something ‘sacred’.3 Life-philosophy or ‘Lebenssoziologie’
(Lash, 2005) can side with neither one of these camps. While it must
refuse scientific reductionism – for life itself is irreducible to specific
forms of life – it is equally important and necessary to abjure the mysti-
cism and irrationalism that considers life in terms of a soul or a person-
alized life-force.
In this essay, I examine Simmel’s thought of the problem of life itself.
To think the phenomenon of life is the explicit aim of Lebensanschauung
(1999c), his most beautiful and also most mature book, first published
shortly after his death in 1918. The title of the book, verbatim ‘lifeview’,
has to be understood in the most literal sense. Instead of presenting
Simmel’s personal view of life, for instance of good and happy life, or
investigating specific contents of life, Lebensanschauung sets out to view
life itself. Obviously, today, the importance of such an undertak-
ing becomes perceptible above all against the pervasive bio-political
techniques of governing and the related debates on ‘bare life’

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80 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

(e.g. Agamben, 1998). Bio-politics, as Michel Foucault (1990: 143) has

argued, invents a new articulation between life and individuality: it is as a
specific living being – and in relation to other living beings – that the
individual becomes a problem for bio-politics. Nevertheless, it is also
precisely at the moment when power takes life as its object that life
becomes resistance to power and is conceived as a vitality that cannot
be confined within a species, an individual, nor a social whole; Foucault
stresses that life is never totally enmeshed in the networks of power/
knowledge, but it constantly escapes the attempts to control, organize,
reinforce and optimize its forces. It is therefore crucial to try to come to
terms with that which in life is irreducible not only to the social terrain
but also to the living individual organism itself.
What makes Simmel’s approach particularly interesting with regard to
the link between life, the individual and power is that his route to the
problem of life itself goes via the individual. For Simmel, life, while
being irreducible to its individual actualizations, cannot be thought oth-
erwise than in some form. Herein lies that which separates Simmel’s con-
ception of life from that of Deleuze, for instance. While in Deleuze man is
dissolved in the non-time of disembodied becoming, for Simmel (1999c:
222) life, while not being reducible nor belonging to any subject, is ‘no
animatedness without a subject’ (subjektlose Bewegtheit) but always
remains more or less bound up with the living individual. Simmel does
not embrace the idea of life as a Heraclitean generalized becoming, as the
modern variations of which one can think – for example, Deleuze’s becom-
ing, a life, and the virtual, as well as the Bergsonian dure´e and e´lan
vital. For Simmel, the philosophies of absolute becoming are flawed in
that they tend to obliterate time, as they abandon ‘all solidity in which a
before and after – that is, time – could mark itself’ (Simmel, 2003: 446;
2005b: 105).
Accordingly, in what follows I will approach Simmel’s life-philosophy
not by taking up the much discussed notions of ‘more-life’ (Mehr-Leben)
and ‘more-than-life’ (Mehr-als-Leben), but by looking at the (dis)entan-
glement of life and the individual. For Simmel, the individual gives itself
to thought from the place of one’s finitude and non-repeatable life;
Simmelian life-philosophy considers the individual on the basis of a life
shaped by immanent death. Besides probing their parallelism with
Deleuzian vitalism, Simmel’s reflections will be discussed in the piece
also and especially in connection with Martin Heidegger’s existential-
ontological interpretation of the dying of Dasein in Being and Time. I
will try to show that, despite Heidegger’s constant efforts to keep his
project at a distance from life-philosophy, Simmel’s insights are to a
great extent immanent in his existential analytics. When discussing the
irreplaceability of the individual, some parallelisms will also be drawn
between Simmel and Jacques Derrida. By way of conclusion, I will draw
attention to the relevance of Simmel’s life-philosophy to debates in

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Pyyhtinen 81

contemporary social theory and philosophy, especially with regard to the

issue of the so-called material or nonhuman vitalism.

Life Individuated
In the secondary literature, Simmel’s theorizing on individuality is most
readily associated with his writings on the metropolis, fashion, and the
dynamic conflict between the individual and society. In these texts,
Simmel considers the individual primarily as a social entity. For
Simmel, the individual is no absolute, final element, but in itself an
‘assembled being’ (zusammengesetzte Wesen) (Simmel, 1997a: 323): the
individual appears as an intersection of social circles (see e.g. Simmel,
1999a: 237), as a ‘point where the social threads woven throughout his-
tory interlace’ (Simmel, 1997a: 230; Jalbert, 2003: 264). In other words,
seen from a sociological viewpoint, individuality results from a set of
relations that is specific to each individual. In Über sociale
Differenzierung (1989a: 244), Simmel insists that individuality has no
inner essence but is ‘maintained through the combination of circles,
which in any case could also be different’. This is precisely the meaning
of the famous notion of ‘quantitative individuality’ by Simmel. As he
explicates the point in a passage from The Philosophy of Money:

Only the combination and fusion of several traits in one focal point
forms a personality which then in its turn imparts to each individual
trait a personal-subjective character. It is not that it is this or that
trait that makes a unique personality of man, but that he is this and
that trait. (Simmel, 1989c: 393; 2004b: 296)

However, later Simmel was to pursue a very different notion of the

individual, as he steered away from the problem of what constitutes
social individuality or individual personality to that of individuated life.
In Rembrandt, Simmel proposes that, ‘What we like to call the ‘‘per-
sonal’’ aspect of people – the external circumstances of their lives (their
social position, whether married or unmarried, rich or poor) – is precisely
that which is not personal about them’. This is because these aspects or
features are ‘shared with countless others’. Accordingly, Simmel thinks
that ‘[t]he more we go into details, the more we find traits that we also
encounter in others’ (Simmel, 2003: 374; 2005b: 50). Indeed, when con-
sidered solely in terms of one’s traits, the content of individuality relies
completely on difference (see Simmel, 1999c: 515). That is, it is ultimately
based on what the individual is not, as it results from comparison with
and contrast to what others are, and hence it does not give individuality
any positive quality that would belong to the individual alone. In other
words, the sociological notion of the individuality of uniqueness or dif-
ference, as Simmel writes in Soziologie, is based on the fact that ‘what has

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82 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

been found in others is not found in one’ (in dem einen das nicht findet,
was in andern gefunden hat) (Simmel, 1992: 842). According to this view,
then, an individual can assume its difference only in comparison to
others. And, as comparison relies on a supraindividual generality, on a
norm, the individuality of uniqueness or difference cannot count as one’s
truly own being. It subjects the singular individual to the formal similar-
ity of individuals, and thus it ‘does not at all touch the individual in one’s
essential reality’ (geht das Individuum nach seiner Wesenswirklichkeit
nicths an) (Simmel, 1999c: 415).
The ultimate reason why Simmel the life-philosopher holds that the
individuality based on difference does not grasp the ‘essential reality’ of
the individual is that, in his view, the individual cannot be merely assem-
bled from the sum of one’s describable qualities. Nevertheless, when
insisting that the individual is not exhausted by one’s qualities Simmel
does not think that the reality of the individual would amount to some
minimalistic nucleus or essence that we get when we strip away the qual-
ities. Rather, it is important to note that for Simmel the individual is not
less than one’s qualities, but always more than them: ‘The individual is
the whole human being, not the rest which remains were one to take from
him all that which pertains to others as well’ (Simmel, 1999c: 415). In
other words, besides having certain qualities the individual is also a unity
or totality that stands over and above all particular attributes, a form
that renders the several features into a whole.4
But in what sense is the individual a ‘unity’ or ‘totality’? In other words,
how should we conceive the being-a-whole, Ganz-Sein, of the individual?
Surely, it cannot mean that in each moment of one’s life the individual
would be actual or present at hand as a whole. Against this speaks, for
example, the fact that humans are no already-established entities. We are
not ‘complete’ the moment we are born, but we change and develop to a
considerable extent throughout our life-course. According to Simmel,
something new is ‘born’ of us all the time: ‘We are not already there [da]
at the instant of our birth; rather, something of us is born constantly’
(Simmel, 1999c: 299; Krell, 1992: 93). Thereby, the life of each individual
forms a unity with the ‘not yet’ (Noch-Nicht) of the future (Simmel, 1999c:
221); ‘the present of life exists in life transcending the present’ (die
Gegenwart des Lebens besteht darin, dass es die Gegenwart transzendiert)
(Simmel, 1999c: 220). Life constantly stretches to the future as a process of
maturation and actualization of virtuality.
The question of Ganz-Sein throws us right in the middle of Simmel’s
life-philosophy. For it is ultimately in the framework of ‘life’ that the
being-as-a-whole of the individual has to be interpreted, as we can see in
the books Lebensanschauung and Rembrandt. In Rembrandt (2003: 447;
2005b: 106), Simmel notes that we must not think the individual ‘as a
solid substance, but as the peculiar identity of the living with itself’ (als
starre Substanz, sondern in der eigentümlichen Identität des Lebendigen

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Pyyhtinen 83

mit sich selbst). A peculiar identity of the living with itself? How does the
living remain identical with itself, while being constantly subject to
change and alterations?5 And in what sense is the identity of the living
(das Lebendige) ‘peculiar’?
To begin unfolding the cluster of questions from the last of them,
the identity in question is ‘peculiar’ because one has to understand it in
temporal terms. For Simmel, the individual is a sequential unity; ‘indi-
viduality. . . is only thinkable through the historical successive ordering. . .
of the moments of life’ (Simmel, 2003: 447; 2005b: 106). At its most
extreme this means that the living could have acted otherwise than it
has, become determined otherwise than it is, perhaps even been other
than it is, without still losing its identity (Simmel, 1999c: 344). The living
is identical with itself primarily because its past extends to its present or,
in other words, because ‘the past arrives at a synthesis with the present’
(Simmel, 2003: 446; 2005b: 105). We are saddled with our past; our past
continues to determine and shape us in our present. Which is to say that
anyone who ‘is torn from his own past. . . is not an individual’ (Simmel,
2003: 446; 2005b: 106). The most evident case here is amnesia. At the
Identity: 8 Rooms 9 Lives exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London,
on show from November 2009 to April 2010, there was a small section on
Clive Wearing, a professional musician and composer who, after having
been contaminated by a virus in 1985 which infected his brain, has been
unable to remember any past events from his life or to form any new
memories ever since. Living ‘his life in the perpetual present’, he is lack-
ing ‘an inner biography’ and thus ‘a meaningful personal identity’, as one
of the wall texts in the exhibition phrased it. Hence, as Simmel (1999c:
219) too stresses, insofar as it is for a significant part through memory
that our past is able to continue to exist in the present,6 personal identity
can be thought in temporal terms.
Thinking the individual as the peculiar identity of the living with itself
is to consider it within the framework of ‘life’. Individuality is essentially
bound up with life. In Lebensanschauung (1999c: 227) Simmel expresses
this very explicitly by noting that ‘individuality is living through and
through, and life is individual through and through’ (Individualität ist
überall lebendig, und das Leben ist überall individuell). For Simmel the life-
philosopher, the individual and life suppose one another: individuality
has to be understood as a peculiar identity of the living with itself, and
everywhere life appears as individuated. However, while saying this,
Simmel does not think that the entanglement of life and the individual
would take place smoothly, without fracture. Quite the contrary, our life,
as life, is constantly torn between two irreconcilable poles. According to

human life . . . stands under the double aspect: on the one hand, we
are thrown into and adapted to cosmic movement, yet on the other

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84 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

hand we feel and conduct our individual existence from our own
centre, as self-responsible and, as it were, in self-enclosed form.
(Simmel, 1999c: 319)

Out of this duality develops for Simmel the ‘ultimate metaphysical

problematic of life’ (Simmel, 1999c: 222). It culminates in the question
of how we can understand life at the same time as unrestricted flow and
as the life of an individual. Life is no substance that would exist inde-
pendent of individual organisms, but it manifests itself precisely as their
life. And yet, while existing only in individuals, the process of life over-
flows and traverses the individual. Simmel notes of life that ‘It never is; it
is always becoming’ (Simmel, 2003: 321; 2005b: 11). Becoming is the
essence of life, its peculiar way of being; life exists by its being ‘more-
life’ (Mehr-Leben). Life is a course of becoming that determines the actu-
ality of phenomena (see Simmel, 2003: 377–8; Lash, 2006: 325), a poten-
tiality insofar as it is always not yet, always in the making, and virtual
insofar as it creates its own lines of actualization.
We can now understand why the self-enclosed, limited form of the
individual and the continuous flux of life that flows through the individ-
ual organism are irreconcilable on a principal level. While being present
only in the living individual, life itself is different from the individual who
is born and who lives and dies. The individual is merely an actualized
form of a life that is virtual, as Deleuze (2001) would put it. Life itself
does not disappear even when a singular individual dies, but it both
precedes and continues to exist after him or her (Simmel, 1999c: 227).
Death means therefore ‘only the end of an individual form of life, not the
end of the life which manifests itself in it’, Simmel (1999c: 336) contends.
The process of life itself, bare life, which the Greeks termed zoe
(Agamben, 1998: 1), is not confined within the individual. On the con-
trary, to emulate the parlance of Simmel, we could say that while life
manifests itself only in the individual, it is also something more-
than-individual. Life, by definition, never ceases: it is continuous, in
itself without limits. For Simmel, life ceaselessly reaches out beyond its
old forms and creates new ones. Constant striving beyond itself
(Hinausgreifen über sich selbst) belongs to the character of life’s mode
of being (Wesensgestaltung des Lebens) (Simmel, 1999c: 221). As Simmel
puts it in Rembrandt (2003: 385; 2005b: 57), ‘life is that which at all points
wants to go beyond itself, reaching out beyond itself’.
However, when we turn from life as an impersonal, pre-individual flux
– or, to follow the terminology of Deleuze (2001), from a life – to the life
of the individual which is always personal(ized), life does not take the
form of the absolute flow of a continuous Heraclitean process. On the
contrary, hereby life receives a new centre: the individual self, the I (Ich),
who connects what is separate and separates what is connected, creates
accentuations and shifts perspective (Simmel, 2000c: 203). Human life is

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Pyyhtinen 85

at once centripetal and centrifugal, a bounded form and a flux without


[A]s soon as something exists as a unity unto itself, gravitating

toward its own centre, then all the occurring flow [Hinausfluten
des Geschehens] from this side to that side of its boundaries is no
longer animatedness without a subject, but remains somehow
bound up with the centre. Even the movement outside its boundary
belongs to the centre; it represents a reaching out in which the form
always remains subject and yet which goes out beyond this subject.
(Simmel, 1999c: 222–3; 1971b: 363 [translation altered])

So while life constantly reaches out beyond its present form, the indi-
vidual nonetheless remains its centre. And, the other way around, as a
form the individual is peculiar in the sense that while life is counterposed
to it, the individual nevertheless remains inseparable from life: without
life, the individual cannot be. This distinguishes the individual essentially
from other forms that originate in life, such as language, works of art,
technology and social formations. After their creation, these forms tend
to cut their connection to life and gain autonomy, as if a ‘life’ of their
own (Eigenleben) (Simmel, 1999b: 106). As they have a meaning and
objectivity in their own right that is no longer vital, the mode of being
of these transvital forms is ‘more-than-life’ (Mehr-als-Leben). The being
of the individual, by contrast, is grounded in life. The individual is only
as living, as long as one is alive.
Accordingly, Simmel is not among the thinkers who champion the
constantly flowing at the expense of the permanent and the fixed. On
the contrary, according to him, the problem with the notion of a purely
continuous current is precisely that it is ‘lacking a definite, persisting
something’, and so it remains ‘animatedness without a subject’ (subjek-
tlose Bewegtheit) (Simmel, 1999c: 222). This Simmelian critique would
hold as much for Bergsonian e´lan vital as for Deleuze’s a life. Unlike
Bergson and Deleuze, Simmel does not embrace the idea of a generalized
becoming for the sake of ousting the notion of being. For Simmel, such a
view would amount to ‘modern Heracliteanism’, in which ‘all substanti-
ality and solidity of the empirical perspective has turned into movement.
In restless transformation a quantum of energy flows through the mate-
rial world, or, rather, is the world’ (Simmel, 2003: 445; 2005b: 105). In
Simmel’s view, one of the flaws of modern Heracliteanism is that it makes
time strictly atemporal. Whereas mechanistic thought cuts off temporal-
ity and reality from one another, because for it only the present is real
(the past which is no longer has no more reality than the future which is
not yet) (Simmel, 1999c: 218), the neo-Heraclitean worldview too oblit-
erates temporality, but in a completely different way. As modern
Heracliteanism perceives life as ‘absolute flow’, it makes the identification

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86 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

of singular moments or events impossible; absolute becoming is therefore

just as atemporal as absolute non-becoming (Simmel, 2003: 445–6;
2005b: 105–6). One of the counterpoints to modern Heracliteanism is,
for Simmel, Rembrandt’s art. According to him, by making visible the
link between temporality and individuality, in Rembrandt’s art ‘the
emerging and submerging moments of becoming. . . are no longer non-
localized atoms of being, but rather states of one and the same individ-
ual’ (Simmel, 2003: 447; 2005b: 106). It is only in individuated life that
the no-more of the past is united in present with the not-yet of the future.
Only life makes time real (Nur für das Leben ist die Zeit real) (Simmel,
1999c: 221).

Entanglement of Life in Death (and Death in Life)

A highly relevant question remains unanswered. That is the question of
the source or root of singularity. On what is the singularity of life based?
What makes one’s individuality singular? To cut a long story short,
Simmel’s answer is: death. This should make it clear why we have
deferred the question so far: not in order to try to avoid it but to suspend
it, to postpone it, just as one would wish to postpone death, that is as
inevitable as it is horrifying. So, before we have been fully prepared to
discuss the problem of the individual who will die, we have had to think
first the living individual, the individual as a peculiar identity of the living
with itself. For even though we are old enough to die as soon as we are
born (or even before that), one cannot die if one does not live first.
Simmel thinks that in death the unique possibility for the realization of
an existence is lost for good (Simmel, 1999c: 329–30). This implies that
the life of an individual is essentially non-repeatable: ‘That the same
existence could occur twice is quite nonsensical’, he maintains in
Rembrandt (2003: 397; 2005b: 68). Each individual is bound to being-
only-once: ‘the particular life cannot be deprived of its being-only-once
[Nur-einmal-Sein]’ (Simmel, 2003: 424; 2005b: 89). Therefore, when an
individual dies, we experience a loss of the person’s very type: ‘The
essence of individuality is that the form cannot be abstracted from its
content and still retain its meaning.. . . the human individual, really
grasped as pure individuality, is the unrepeatable form’ (Simmel, 2003:
373; 2005b: 48–9). In other words, the unique existence of the individual
is the form in which the in itself endless process of life gives itself as finite.
Death is that which individuates life, just as it is the individual who, in its
actual form, ‘mortalizes’ life. Pure individuality has therefore for Simmel
nothing to do with the individual’s particular qualities, as was already
noted above: ‘Even if an existence, in one or all of its stages, would look
exactly the same as some other one, it would nevertheless be, with all of
its preconditions, derivations, and borrowings – as a life process; as
a reality of becoming – just this unique current’ (Simmel, 2003: 398;
2005b: 68).

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Pyyhtinen 87

As it happens, Heidegger’s treatment of death in Being and Time

(1962) has remarkable similarities with Simmel’s life-philosophical
notion of death. As is well known, Heidegger makes reference to
Simmel on a couple of occasions in Being and Time.7 However, the par-
allelisms go much deeper than the passing references. In his book Von
Georg Simmel zu Martin Heidegger, Michael Großheim (1991) has doc-
umented well Simmel’s presence and role in Heidegger’s early work and
the gradual distancing of the latter from life-philosophy and, respec-
tively, from Simmel. And, although throughout Being and Time
Heidegger makes it very clear to his reader that the existential-ontolog-
ical analytic of Dasein is to be sharply distinguished from life-philosophy
(as much as from biology, physiology, psychology and anthropology, for
example), the latter belongs to the soil from which Heidegger’s analysis
of time and Dasein’s being-towards-end grows.
As there already exists a detailed scholarship on the link between
Simmel’s life-philosophy and Heidegger’s existential-ontological concep-
tion of death (see Krell, 1992: 92–94; Gawoll, 1993: 147–150; Jalbet,
2003: 271–274), I will settle here for only taking up a couple of examples.
First of all, like Simmel, Heidegger (1962: §49 290) perceives death as a
‘phenomenon of life’, as a boundary of life still part of life. Neither of the
two philosophers think of death as a violent interruption of life that
would befall it as if from outside. Simmel abjures this kind of idea by
introducing a conceptual distinction between ‘dying’ (Sterben) and ‘being
killed’ (Getötetwerden) (Simmel, 1999c: 300), and Heidegger one between
‘dying’ (Sterben) and ‘perishing’ (Verenden) (Heidegger, 1962: §47 284;
§49 291). In Lebensanschauung, Simmel maintains that most of the prim-
itive people (Naturvölke) perceived that the only way death can realize
itself is through the kill: whenever a being – whether human or animal –
dies, it comes to an end by being killed. Nevertheless, Simmel argues that
here the understanding of life is not ‘deep enough’ or, better, ‘individual
enough’ (individuell genug). In being killed death is something exterior
and alien to life, something accidental that falls upon it from outside. In
dying, by contrast, death as that which ultimately abolishes life belongs
originally and inwardly to the very nature and being of life. Dying is
therefore primordial to being killed, for a living being can be killed only
on the condition that it is possible for it to die (Simmel, 1999c: 300).
Hence, for Simmel, death is immanent in life. A few pages later, Simmel
frames this in a dialectical fashion by stating that: ‘Life demands, from
within, death as its opposite, its ‘‘other’’’ (Simmel, 1999c: 308). The
immanence of death in life means not only that death stems from
nowhere else than life itself, but also that ‘we do not come to die only
in our last instant [Augenblick]’ (Simmel, 1999c: 299). Death affects and
sets the tone for every moment and content of our life (this is something
which Simmel notes in many of his texts; see e.g. 1999c: 298; 2001a: 82;
2003: 401; 1992: 102). Death accompanies our life from the very

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88 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

beginning: ‘In every single moment [Momente] of life we are of the kind
that will die’ (Simmel, 1999c: 299).
There is absolute certainty that we shall die; what we do not know is
when this is going to happen (Simmel, 1999c: 301). Leo Tolstoy depicts
the horror and unsettling effect of this conjoining of the existential cer-
tainty and temporal indeterminacy in a perspicacious manner in the short
novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The main character Ivan Ilyich, a member
of the Court of Justice, is living a decent, secured life immersed in every-
dayness. One day he bumps his side on a window-frame knob when
falling from a stepladder on the occasion of hanging the draperies. He
has forgotten the whole incident ever happening, but after a while he
develops a strange taste in his mouth and a funny feeling in his side, a
constant dragging sensation that doesn’t go away but only seems to get
worse day by day. Ivan Ilyich is visited by many specialists, and various
reasons from floating kidneys to chronic colitis and blind gut are given to
his worsening state, but no cure is found. Realizing that his condition has
in fact nothing to do with floating kidneys or any such things, but is a
matter of life and death, of living or dying, Ivan Ilyich finds himself
terrified. As he becomes aware that he is going to die, he understands
that he has to live with this knowledge along with the terror of not
knowing when exactly he is going to die:

It’s a matter of living or ... dying. Yes, I have been alive, and now
my life is steadily going away, and I can’t stop it. No. There is no
point in fooling myself. Can’t they all see – everybody but me – that
I’m dying? It’s only a matter of weeks, or days – maybe any minute
now. (Tolstoy, 2006: 56–7)

In a manner not very dissimilar to Simmel, Heidegger rejects the idea

of Dasein’s death as something advening from the outside and, as already
hinted, it is to this end that he makes the distinction into dying and
perishing, the latter of which he equates with physiological death.
According to Heidegger, dying is not external to the life of Dasein but
immanent in it. On page 289 in section §48 of Being and Time he writes

just as Dasein is already its ‘not-yet’, and is its ‘not-yet’ constantly

as long as it is, it is already its end too. The ‘ending’ which we have
in view when we speak of death does not signify Dasein’s Being-at-
an-end [Zu-Ende-Sein], but a Being-towards-the-end [Sein zum Ende]
of this entity. Death is a way to be, which Dasein takes over as soon
as it is. As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.

Thus, Heidegger concludes that death belongs to the existence of Dasein

as its ownmost possibility: ‘Death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein

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Pyyhtinen 89

itself has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself
in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being’ (Heidegger, 1962: §50 294). For
Heidegger, dying is Dasein’s absolutely ownmost, independent and non-
relational possibility that does not depend on others. Herein lies the
second remarkable similarity between Simmel and Heidegger besides the
aforementioned idea of the immanence of death in life, though Simmel
does not place the same emphasis on the notion of ‘possibility’
(Möglichkeit) as Heidegger does.8 For example, Heidegger stresses that
death is always imminent, that is, only ‘on the verge of coming to presence’
(Krell, 1992: 238), which is something that Simmel does not examine.9
Nonetheless, while Heidegger regards dying as something proper to
Dasein, Simmel sees dying as a defining factor of the life of the individual.
It is only individuals who are capable of dying. For Simmel, non-individ-
ual beings may be killed, have their thread of life suddenly and accidentally
cut off; but in their case, death is not yet an internal possibility of life
(Simmel, 1999c: 300, 328, 330). It is according to Simmel only the life of
the individual that is accompanied by immanent death in each and every
moment. For Simmel (1999c: 326), the capability to die is thus the mark of
a higher, individual existence. In fact, he goes as far as claiming that the
capability to die captures ‘the proper definition of individuality’ (die eigen-
tliche Definition der Individualität) (Simmel, 1999c: 330). The more indi-
vidual a being is the more constitutive death is for it: ‘Only the individual
dies fully; with the absolute individual something would be absolutely
towards the end’ (Nur das Individuum stirbt vollständig; mit dem absoluten
Individuum wäre etwas absolut zum Ende) (Simmel, 1999c: 328). Indeed, in
Simmel’s view, the whole ‘question of mortality becomes altogether acute
only with respect to the genuine [eigentlichen] individual’. And, the other
way around, ‘Where the individuals are not distinguished, there the
immortality of the species swallows up the mortality of the individual’
(Simmel, 1999c: 325).
Interestingly, with its insistence on the individualizing nature of death,
Simmel’s understanding of death is in direct contrast with Jean-Paul
Sartre’s subsequent existential-philosophical interpretation of death in
Being and Nothingness (1992). For Sartre, death means precisely the
loss of individuality: death strips the individual of one’s singularity and
uniqueness. Sartre thinks that ‘death is never that which gives life its
meaning; it is, on the contrary, that which on principle removes all mean-
ing from life’ (Sartre, 1992: 690). Unlike Simmel – and Heidegger, whose
identification of death and finitude Sartre is explicitly opposing here –
Sartre regards death as always advening from the outside. Instead of
being a possibility of my life, ‘[d]eath. . . comes to us from the outside
and it transforms us into the outside’, Sartre (1992: 698) insists. For
Sartre, death is always sudden, always an event which cannot be awaited
for and which not only is outside my possibilities but also annihilates
them. By drawing on Simmel, however, one could criticize Sartre by

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90 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

asserting that the unexpectedness of death doesn’t make it supervene

from the outside. As we have seen, Simmel maintains that temporal
indeterminacy is precisely a characteristic of immanent death, a charac-
teristic that is accompanied by death’s existential certainty. Death is at
once expectable and unexpected, certain and indeterminate, an immanent
phenomenon of life and an event. This possibility of the immanence of
the event is something which Sartre fails to acknowledge.
However, though Simmel’s life-philosophy can be sided with
Heidegger’s existential ontology against the conceptions of death that
place it outside life, the conceptual pair dying–perishing in Heidegger
is far from being equivalent to the distinction Simmel makes between
dying and being killed. According to Heidegger (1962: §47 284), the dying
of Dasein must be distinguished from the perishing of the ‘merely living’
(Nur-lebenden).10 He insists that the ‘merely’ living, such as animals and
plants, cannot die, but their life ends in perishing. And, by contrast,
‘Dasein never perishes’ (Heidegger, 1962: §49: 291). However, surely
Heidegger would not deny that Dasein can be killed. Being killed
would only amount to the inappropriate dying of Dasein in Heidegger’s
existential ontology. That is, when Dasein is killed, it does not die prop-
erly, in a manner that is appropriate to its being. Namely, even though
Dasein cannot perish, Heidegger (1962: §49 291; translation altered)
maintains that ‘Dasein. . . can end without properly dying [das
Dasein. . . enden kann, ohne dass es eigentlich stirbt]’.11
Occasionally Simmel too suggests that human beings do not always die
properly. For example, in Lebensanschauung (1999c: 326) he contends
that only ‘‘‘few’’ (einzigen) people die fully [ganz und gar]’. The end of
average people (Durchschnittswesen) (1999c: 327) immersed in their
everydayness (Alltagsmenschen) (1999c: 326) (cf. Heidegger’s das Man,
which he distinguishes from the authentic self), by contrast, is never full.
As for Heidegger, to distinguish between proper and improper or appro-
priate and inappropriate dying he introduces the notion of demise
(Ableben). It is a middle position or, in the Simmelian parlance, a
‘third’ in between perishing and dying. Demise is the way Dasein dies
when it does not die properly, though it is not to be confused with per-
ishing: ‘Dasein never perishes. Dasein, however, can demise only as long
as [nur solange, als] it is dying’ (Heidegger, 1962: §49 291).
For Heidegger, dying is thus the ontological foundation of demise. As
David Farrel Krell contends in his book Daimon Life (1992: 97–8), the
phrase nur solange, als has to be understood not only in the sheer tem-
poral sense of ‘only for the time that’, but in the much stronger sense of
‘only to the extent that’. Dasein can demise, that is, die inappropriately,
only on the condition that it is capable of dying properly. Thus, for
Heidegger the existential analysis of death precedes any philosophy of
life, and comes after the fundamental ontology of Dasein (1992: 98).
However, as Krell convincingly argues, despite all his efforts Heidegger

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Pyyhtinen 91

fails to shoo away life-philosophy from the existential analytic. Even

though life does not belong to the existential structure of Dasein for
Heidegger, one cannot think Dasein without life, be it only for the fact
that Dasein dies, and it is only the living that can die. In fact, Krell asks
whether it would be ‘possible that the existential-ontological interpreta-
tion derives its most powerful idea, the idea of being toward and unto
death, Sein zum Tode, precisely from the biology and the life-philosophy
that it claims to abjure’ (1992: 85).
Indeed, it can be argued that life is the ground of the ontological
analysis of Dasein. Inasmuch as death is a phenomenon of life, the exis-
tential interpretation of death is posterior to life-philosophy, which
would thus also be anterior to any analysis of Dasein. Or, if one acknowl-
edges that time is the essence of Dasein, in temporal terms Dasein even
becomes equivalent to life, which always reaches out beyond its present
(for more on the parallelisms of Simmel’s and Heidegger’s conceptions of
time, see Großheim, 1991: 57–64).
Nevertheless, what remains on the Simmelian side beyond the affinities
between the two thinkers is a kind of animal vitality – a life embodied in
the living organism without fully coinciding with it. Though Simmel’s
life-philosophy is mainly concerned with the world-relation of humans,
rather than confirming human exceptionality, it places humans on a par
with all living organisms. In Rembrandt (2003: 401; 2005b: 71), Simmel
concedes: ‘Death is a quality of organic existence’. Unlike an inorganic
body (Körper), which finds its limits determined from the outside, the
limits of an organic body are not only spatial but also temporal: the form
of the organic body is limited from within, by the fact that it is finite
(Simmel, 1999c: 297). A death that is immanent in life is appropriate to
anything that is living, and thus it is also indifferent to any conceptual
barriers erected between living beings.12 The human individual, too, is
dying precisely as a living organism, as some-body that is alive.

Appropriation and Irreductions of Death

But what does it mean to ‘die properly’, to die an existential death? In
other words, in what sense does the individual die ‘fully’ (vollständig), as
Simmel (1999c: 328) assumes, or Dasein ‘end fully’ (vollendet), to follow
Heidegger’s (1962: §48 288) choice of words? To come up with an answer,
let us go back to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. While realizing the
fact that he is inevitably heading towards his end and that there is noth-
ing he or anyone else can do about it, Ivan Ilyich still has insurmountable
troubles with coping with all this. Even though he can see that he is
dying, he cannot accept the idea or understand it:

All his life the syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic –
Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is

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92 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

mortal – had always seemed to him to be true only when it applied

to Caesar, certainly not to him. There was Caesar the man, and man
in general, and it was fair enough for them, but he wasn’t Caesar the
man and he wasn’t man in general, he had always been a special
being, totally different from others ... . (Tolstoy, 2006: 61)

In the mind of Ivan Ilyich, death cannot apply to him; it concerns

people in general, the others, but not him, because he isn’t ‘man in gen-
eral’ but a singular being. However, just as Ivan Ilyich must take his
dying upon himself as his end comes closer and closer, Simmel insists
that it is not only life that appears individuated in the nonrepeatable
form of the individual, but death too. As it individuates life, death
loses its generality and equality. In Rembrandt (2003: 410), Simmel
quotes a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

O Herr, gib jedem seinen eignen Tod,

Das Sterben, das aus jenem Leben geht,
Darin er Liebe hatte, Sinn und Not.
[Oh Lord, give each a death of his own
The dying that emerges out of that life
In which he had love, meaning, and need.]13

In the verse, Rilke too seems to subscribe to the idea of immanent

death (‘The dying that emerges out of that life’) that we have seen Simmel
and Heidegger evoke. However, when it comes to the question of singu-
lar, individuated death, the key line here is the first one, appearing in the
form of a plea: ‘Oh Lord, give each a death of his own’ (O Herr, gib
jedem seinen eignen Tod). In the plea, Simmel suggests, ‘the generality of
death negates itself’ (Simmel, 2003: 410; 2005b: 78). The plea insists that
death should not be one and the same for all, but each and every indi-
vidual must die – and does die – a death of one’s own, one’s ownmost
It is the idea of death as owned, as my death, that is implied in the
notion of dying properly. In dying properly the individual/Dasein makes
death something of its own. Nevertheless, as Simmel does not venture
further in this direction, we must take Heidegger as our guide. In Being
and Time (1962: §47 284), Heidegger proposes: ‘No one can take the
Other’s dying away from him’ (Keiner kann dem Anderen sein Sterben
abnehmen). One can always give one’s life for the other, but this can
never mean that one is able to take the other’s dying away from her,
in the sense of dying in the place of the other, instead of her. One can
only give one’s life for the other in a certain matter, by giving her an
organ or taking a bullet in place of her, for instance. But by giving my life
for the other, I can only give the other a little more time to live; what I
cannot give her is immortality. I cannot rescue the other from certain

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Pyyhtinen 93

death, as my death can never take the other’s death away from her. On
the contrary, Heidegger notes, and here we arrive at the core of the issue
of what is meant by the claim of death as owned: ‘Dying is something that
every Dasein itself must take upon itself at the time’ (Heidegger, 1962:
§47 284). The dying that one takes upon oneself inevitably ‘remains
mine’, as Derrida puts it in his reading of Heidegger in The Gift of
Death (1995: 42). Death cannot be general but everywhere it appears
as individually owned: ‘By its very essence, death is in every case mine,
insofar as it ‘‘is’’ at all’, Heidegger (1962: §47 284) maintains. The indi-
vidual has to take it upon oneself.
Now we should finally be able to see quite clearly in which sense the
life-philosophical notion of the individual by Simmel is to be distin-
guished from the sociological one. While, seen from a sociological per-
spective, the individual becomes irreplaceable by finding one’s place in
the overall structure of society (Simmel, 1992: 59, 842–3), in the light of
absolute singularity, on the contrary, the irreplaceability of the individual
can be understood only from the place of one’s finitude and nonrepea-
table life. As no one can die in the place of the other, the irreplaceability
of the individual is given, in the last instance, by death. In Derrida’s
(1995: 41) words: ‘death is the place of one’s irreplaceability’. It is
because I am mortal that my ‘existence excludes every possible substitu-
tion’. Therefore, Derrida concludes, ‘to have the experience of one’s
absolute singularity and apprehend one’s own death amounts to the
same thing. Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo
or confront in my place’ (Derrida, 1995: 41).
On this account, my death is thus not only the ownmost, independent
and nonrelational possibility of my existence, as Heidegger thinks, but, as
such, it is also the foundation of my ownmost, independent and nonrela-
tional individuality, the Simmelian individuated life. This is not to say
that the Simmelian/Heideggerian notion of death would be the ultimate
truth about death nor the only possible way of thinking philosophically –
not to speak of sociologically, medically, demographically, or psycholog-
ically, for example – about death.14 For instance, in his book Negative
Theologie der Zeit (1991) Michael Theunissen advances a thesis on the
presence of death in life, a thesis which draws substantially from Simmel
and Heidegger. Nevertheless, Theunissen explicitly renounces the kind of
reductions that Heidegger’s notion of death rests on. He rejects, first, the
reduction of death to life; second, the reduction of death to human death;
third, the reduction of human death to the death of the individual, and,
fourth, the reduction of the individual, owned death to a death that ‘I can
take on in my action’ (ich handelnd übernehmen kann). Dissociating his
own thought from these four reductions, Theunissen commences from
the conviction that, although death is present in life, it cannot be dis-
solved to life; that death is both something genuinely human and the
common fate of all that is alive; that I experience in my own death that of

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94 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

the other and in the other’s death that of my own; and that although I
can take something of death upon myself, death nonetheless remains an
event of nature, something that occurs to me and confirms the fact that I
belong to nature (Theunissen, 1991: 191).
To Simmel’s life-philosophical concept of death hold at least two of
these reductions, namely the first and the third. As regards the first
reduction, although Simmel conceives death as the ‘other’ of life, he
nonetheless dissolves it in life: for him, death emerges from nowhere
else than life itself. While it rightly stresses how death accompanies life
in each and every moment, the problem with the idea of the immanence
of death in life nevertheless is that it threatens to render the opposition of
life and death negligible, if not invalid. As for the second reduction,
Simmel avoids anthropomorphizing death. As we have seen, for
Simmel dying is at once human and appropriate to all living, insofar
as it is of the measure of life; we die constantly irrespective of whether
we take death upon ourselves or not. When it comes to the third reduc-
tion, Simmel’s position is in agreement with it, as he considers human
death in terms of the death of the individual. And although the phenom-
enon of being killed does dissipate this individuality of death, on an
ontological level individual dying comes first, prior to being killed for
Simmel. A living being can be killed only to the extent that it is possible
for it to die. Finally, Simmel’s relation to the fourth reduction remains
unclear. While he does maintain that dying is a capability, something
that the individual can do, he also seems to have it that a dying that is of
one’s own is nevertheless not ‘taken’ but given (let us recall here the verse
‘Oh Lord, give each a death of his own’ by Rilke that Simmel references).
In addition, in the essay ‘The Metaphysics of Death’ (2001a: 84; 2007:
75), Simmel suggests that while our life inevitably leads to death, it can
also be defined as Todesflucht, ‘fleeing from death’: ‘The life that we use
up as we approach death is used up to flee death. We are like people who
walk in the opposite direction on a moving ship: as they walk towards the
south, the ground on which they are doing so is being carried to the

Simmel’s work on the problem of life itself perfectly expresses and exem-
plifies much of the uncertainty surrounding the concept of life. In
Simmel, life appears as a very contradictory phenomenon: for example,
it is unmanifestable and yet real only in its manifestations; it is the oppo-
site of form and yet it can be described only in some form; it is a pre-
individual flux of becoming and yet it is always immanent to the indi-
vidual; and it is constantly heading towards death and a struggle against
the tendency to death. In sum, it seems that, for Simmel, life is what it is
not, and it is not what it is.

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Pyyhtinen 95

Nevertheless, I contend that it is precisely by disclosing the contradic-

tions of life that Simmel’s life-philosophy manages not only to avoid the
rigid dichotomy between scientific reductionism and (quasi-)religious
mysticism, but also escape the idealism or even transcendentalism
implied by Deleuze’s notion of ‘a life’. By, as it were, doubling life into
a life, on the one hand, and the life of the individual, on the other, and
focusing on the first, Deleuze tends to reproduce, against the very grain
of his monism, the division into ‘soul’ – understood here in the
Aristotelian sense as a capability immanent to the body – and matter.
For Simmel, by contrast, the contrast between a life as impersonal,
unrestricted becoming and the bounded life of the individual is exactly
the way in which life in the absolute sense exists. Notwithstanding the
endeavour of viewing life itself announced by the title of his book
Lebensanschauung, Simmel rejects the very possibility of representing
‘life proper’. He thinks that we are denied access to life as such. On
the contrary, we can experience and know life only in some individual
and actual form, never in its pure virtuality, as an absolute flow.
Accordingly, the sort of animal vitality appropriate to living organisms
that remained on Simmel’s side after the similarities between his life-
philosophy and the existential-ontology of Heidegger offers important
insights for the contemporary thought about life and death informed
and inspired among others by Heidegger and Deleuze.
However, to concentrate solely on the notion of a life would not do
justice to the richness of Deleuze’s understanding of vitality. What I am
especially thinking here is the idea of ‘material vitalism’ he employed in
his collaboration with Félix Guattari (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 411).
The notion suggests a way of thinking life in terms of ‘matter-energy’,
‘matter flow’ and ‘matter in variation that enters assemblages and leaves
them’ (1987: 407; see also Bennett, 2010). Material vitalism assumes a
vitality that ‘exists everywhere’, ‘a life proper to matter’ (Deleuze and
Guattari, 1987: 411). Much in line with this, Thacker (2007: 314) has put
forth the idea of vitalism as being nonhuman in essence:

Vitalism is a nonhuman affair; or better, vitalism is the point at

which a nexus between ‘life’ and ‘multiplicity’ forces thought into
an ambivalent zone that is nonhuman. The occurrence of plague,
floods, and natural disasters has historically served as the tragic
event in which physis posits a challenge to an all-too-human
nomos. Perhaps the vital is the nonhuman that courses through
the human.

What is interesting is that in the essay ‘The Fragmentary Character of

Life’ (2000c: 203; 2012) Simmel maintains in a manner not very dissimilar
to the material vitalism of Deleuze and Guattari that we have to under-
stand the spatiotemporal existence of all nature in terms of a vitality, that

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96 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

is, as ‘a constant stream of energies interacting with everything, in an

unending unity of elements in ever different combinations’. Accordingly,
as Simmel puts it in his doctoral thesis Das Wesen der Materie nach Kants
Physischer Monadologie, given that ‘matter emerges out of forces
[Kräften], then one should no longer treat it as purely passive stuff’.
Rather, insofar as matter is a product of the interplay of energies, it
presents us no fixed thinghood, ‘but a continuous process, no being
[Sein]. . . but becoming [Werden]’ (Simmel, 1999a: 26).
This challenges the fairly standard view in the secondary literature,
originally proposed – as far as I know – by Siegfried Kracauer (1995:
225), that Simmel’s ideas bear ‘almost no relationship to the natural
sciences’. For Simmel, matter itself is a process of becoming.
Nevertheless, Simmel cannot really be said to have advocated any kind
of material or nonhuman vitalism himself. For one thing, in his life-phi-
losophy he concerns himself less with the life of the body, with some-
body that is alive, than with the life of the ‘spirit’ (Geist). What interests
him is, above all, the processes of ‘life becoming spirit’ (Geistwerden des
Lebens) and ‘spirit becoming life’ (Lebenwerden des Geistes) (see Simmel,
2005a: 873). Second, Simmel could not have imagined a materialism that
would account for life, for he distinguishes living bodies from inorganic
ones (2007: 73), and life from the mechanism of matter (see e.g. 2001b:
386–7; 2000a). For Simmel, though being manifest only in some material
forms, life is something not quite material. It is precisely this kind of life/
matter dichotomy that material vitalism claims to dissolve (see Bennett,
2010). Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 411), for example, propose ‘[t]he
prodigious idea of Nonorganic Life’. According to them, vitality is not
(solely) organic, for they think that it is metal that best reveals a life
proper to matter.
However, the moment the Deleuzo-Guattarian notion of anorganic
life is evoked, it faces considerable problems. If life exists everywhere,
how is it possible for us to tell life and non-life apart? To me, an answer
that vital materialism escapes this criticism, as it dissipates the very divide
between vitality and non-vitality, would remain unsatisfactory, since the
notion of life becomes untenable, completely devoid of meaning if every-
thing is considered to be alive. Simmel’s originality lies precisely in that
he furnishes the notion of life with a precise meaning without, however,
at the same time assuming any essence to life, as Bergson, for instance,
did with the idea of life-force.15 Simmel achieves this with the notion of
‘boundary’ (Grenze) that is placed at the heart of his life-philosophy. For
Simmel, the nonliving is a necessary element of life: life not only needs
forms in order to become what it is, but also is from the outset shaped by
death that accompanies life in each and every moment. It is in its atten-
tion to the nonliving within life, that is, to the point where the living
becomes either more-than-living or no-longer-living, that Simmel’s life-
philosophical work might help to realign the notion of life in a manner

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Pyyhtinen 97

that would not only avoid anthropomorphizing and assumptions of

essence, but also account for life’s singularity.

1. Some of the article’s ideas have been previously discussed in the book Simmel
and ‘the Social’ (2010) by the author.
2. All quotations from German sources have been translated by the author;
where a German source is followed by an English equivalent source, the
translation is from that.
3. See Bennett (2010) for an excellent analysis of the ‘culture of life’ promoted
by these groups and the George W. Bush administration in the United States.
4. Simmel (1971a) considers the irreducibility of the individual to his or her
qualities in the light of love. According to him, modern love is characterized
by the fact that we do not love a person only ‘because he possesses these and
those attributes, but simply because he just is. However valuable the qualities
of a person may be, feelings are attached to the unity and totality which lies
behind them. Its superiority over all particular attributes which stimulate love
(which only serve to form bridges to that totality) is evident from the fact that
love survives the disappearance of these several attributes’ (Simmel, 2004a:
187; 1971a: 244). Elsewhere, I have considered this separation between the
individual and his/her qualities in terms of the who and the what of the indi-
vidual (see Pyyhtinen, 2008). One can argue that individuality is always split
and divided between the what and the who.
5. Gregor Fitzi (2002: 314–315) has examined the problem of identity in terms
of change and permanence in the light of Simmel’s thoughts on the earthly
soul-transmigration (diesseitige Seelenwanderung) of the self.
6. The idea is very likely to have been influenced by Bergson’s Matter and Memory
(1991). In a letter to Husserl, dated 19 November 1911, Simmel (2005a: 941)
notes: ‘Lately I have occupied myself very much with Bergson and I must say
that I am highly impressed by his epistemological conceptions – especially in
Matiere et Memoire.’ What separates Simmel from Bergson is that Simmel stres-
ses that the past lives on in the present (Hineinleben der Vergangenheit in die
Gegenwart), not only with the help of memory, as Bergson pictured it, but also
through ‘the objectification into concepts and formations’ (die Objektivierung in
Begriffen und Gebilden), which outlive the moment of their emergence and may
even be passed on to future generations (Simmel, 1999c: 219).
7. For example, when discussing Dasein’s being-towards-the-end in §49, he
writes in a note: ‘Recently, G. Simmel has also explicitly included the phe-
nomenon of death in his characterization of ‘‘life’’, though admittedly with-
out clearly separating the biological-ontic and the ontological existential
problematics’ (Heidegger, 1962: 494–495 n. vi).
8. Großheim (1991: 65) has noted that, while Simmel too agrees that we are our
possibilities, he does not regard this as the defining characteristic of life. For
Heidegger (1962: §9 68), by contrast, ‘Dasein is in each case essentially its own
9. However, see for example Simmel in ‘The Metaphysics of Death’ (2007: 74):
‘death [may] be seen. . . as linked from the outset with life, even if it – or a part
of it – cannot be identified as reality at each moment’.

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98 Theory, Culture & Society 29(7/8)

10. Translation altered. In their translation of Sein und Zeit, John Macquarrie
and Edward Robinson translate Nur-lebenden as ‘that which has life’. The
translation is not the best possible one, since if life is a flow of becoming
which generates subjects as well as objects, life cannot ‘belong’ to anyone as
such, in the sense of property. No one can ‘have’ life, but life rather ‘gives’
itself in the sense of the German expression es gibt: ‘there is’ life.
11. Macquarrie and Robinson translate eigentlich here as ‘authentically’.
12. This should also make it clear why Simmel’s conception of the individuation
of life does not have much to do with the heroic individuality of Goethe,
Michelangelo or Rembrandt, for example, who appear in Simmel’s texts as
privileged examples of qualitative individuality or the individual law.
13. Translation by Scott and Staubmann (in Simmel, 2005b: 169 n. 6).
14. Kellehear (2009) provides an informative overview of the various perspec-
tives on death in the social and behavioural studies.
15. In Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie (1989a: 344), for example, Simmel
denies the existence of any ‘life-force’ (Lebenskraft) (see also 1989b: 275).

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Olli Pyyhtinen is a senior lecturer in sociology at the Department of

Social Research, University of Turku, Finland. His research interests
lie within social theory, process philosophy, object-oriented sociology,
economic sociology, science and technology studies, and the study of
art. He has published a number of articles on social theory and a book
titled Simmel and ‘the Social’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). He is currently
working towards two books, The Simmelian Legacy (Palgrave
Macmillan) and The Gift Object (Ashgate).

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