work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

in-between: Georg Simmel and İbn Arabî

07.05.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

In his short but seminal 1909 essay ‘The Bridge and the Door’ Georg Simmel analyses and celebrates the human habit of differentiating, delineating and separating – and then reconnecting, relating as expressed in the cultural achievements of path-laying, bridge-building and architecture in general. In doing so he anticipates some themes that were to become central features of early 20th century philosophical anthropology (especially in the works of Max Scheler and of Helmuth Plessner)

 ‘The image of external things possesses for us the ambiguous dimension that in external nature everything can be considered to be connected, but also as separate. The uninterrupted transformations of materials as well as energies bring everything into relationship with everything else and make one cosmos out of all the individual elements. On the other hand, however, the objects remain banished in the merciless separation of space; no particle of matter can share its space with another and a real unity of the diverse does not exist in spatial terms.’ (Simmel 1994: 4) ‘By choosing two items from the undisturbed store of natural things in order to designate them as „separate“, we have already related them to one another in our consciousness, we have emphasized these two together against whatever lies between them. And conversely, we can only sense those things to be related which we have previously somehow isolated from one another; things must first be separated from one another in order to be together.’ (Simmel 1994: 5) ‘It is absolutely essential for humanity that it set itself a boundary, but with freedom, that is in such a way that it can also remove this boundary again, that it can place itself outside it. The finitude into which we have entered somehow always borders somewhere on the infinitude of physical or metaphysical being.’ (Simmel 1994: 7)

Now compare the underlying philosophical-anthropological approach of this late 19th / early 20th cultural sociologist with those of the 12th / 13th century Islamic mystic İbn Arabî as explained, here, by Salman Bashier:

 ‘Ibn al-‘Arabī says that differentiation (tafriqa) is the root of all things. This is because through the process of differentiation limits (ḥudūd) are set between things, and except for the limits knowledge would be impossible. There is a paradoxical aspect intrinsic to the activity of defining that consists of differentiating one thing from another. Something is defined through a process in which it is separated from all relations with Other. But difference itself is a relation, indeed, the most unifying of relations, “The closest, most affectionate, and most unifying of relations is one between | Other (khilāf) and its other, from which it is differentiated … Affection (mawadda) between differentiated things prevents each of them from wanting the disappearance of its other from existence. Each desires and wishes that it could become one with its other for the sake of avoiding any difference between itself and Other, so that witnessing becomes only for the one and that the other disappears in it.’ (Bashier 2004: 87)

Just as his Tragedy of Culture constitutes a secularisation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, much of Simmel’s analysis of material culture could be understood as a secularisation of İbn Arabî’s anthropology and theology. How is this possible? I am quite certain that Simmel never read İbn Arabî – his most likely contact with Islamic mysticism might have been its reflections in Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan, for the most part a poetical reflection on Hafiz.

One could go a search for shared roots – and one of those is of course Plato. Here in fact we find a predecessor of the notion of a paradoxical unity of the separated which is owed to the very fact of separation. Ibn Arabi’s concept of the in-between/limit –  the berzah –  which is the locus of the longing imagination correspond to Plato’s méthexis as paradoxical union of separation (chōrismós) and presence (parousía) (Hoffmann 1919). I am sure, if one were to look one would easily find instances in Western philosophy that take up this theme – and which will have made it easier for the philosopher Georg Simmel to formulate his pioneering sociological understanding of material culture. But explanation by shared tradition, by constructing histories of ideas and genealogies of concepts, helpful as it is in understanding where certain ideas come from to be taken up or further developed by those searching for clues and concepts to make sense of the world, does not account for why certain ideas are being found useful at certain times or by certain theorists.

But then: would could possibly be similar in the situation that thinkers as distant in time as Plato, İbn Arabî and Simmel?

I would suggest that all them, Plato included, – and those who followed them: from Plotinus to Hypateia, from Walter Benjamin to Zygmunt Bauman and from the Anatolian Sufis (see Küçük 2007) to Rıza Tevfik (see Zarcone 1993) – were cosmopolitan urbanites. Is it surprising that thinkers who live in and move between cities are likely to develop a taste for the paradoxical unity of the diverse and different?

It may well be that institutions of metropolitan life, such as the cafés of Berlin … and of course Istanbul (Karababa/Ger 2011) act as real life paradigms for the berzah of the creative imagination of the Sufi as much as of the sociologist.



Bashier, Salman H. (2004): Ibn al-‘Arabī’s Barzakh: The Concept of the Limit and the Relationship between God and the World, Albany: State University of New York Press

Hoffmann, Ernst (1919): ‘Methexis und Metaxy bei Platon’, in: Sokrates: Zeitschrift für das Gymnasialwesen, Vol.73, pp.48-70

Karababa, Eminegül/Ger, Güliz (2011): ‘Early Modern Ottoman Coffeehouse Culture and the Formation of the Consumer Subject’, in: Journal of Consumer Research, Vol.37, No.5, pp.737-60

Küçük, Hülya (2007): ‘Dervishes Make a City: The Sufi Culture in Konya’, in: Critque: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.16, No.3, pp.241-53

Simmel, Georg (1994): ‘Bridge and Door’, in: Theory, Culture and Society, Vol.11, pp.5-10

Zarcone, Thierry (1993): Mystiques, philosophes, et francs-maçons en Islam: Riza Tevfik, penseur ottoman (1868-1949), Paris: Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes d’Istanbul

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