Bowdoin College

Simmel, “The Stranger”

The Stranger

“In the case of the stranger, the union of closeness and remoteness involved in every human relationship is patterned in a way that may be succinctly formulated as follows: the distance within this relation indicates that one who is close by is remote, but his strangeness indicates that one who is remote is near.  The state of being a stranger is of course a completely positive relation; it is a specific form of interaction.” Georg Simmel, 126

Simmel describes an interesting coexistence of nearness and distance that characterizes the human relationship with a stranger.  I struggled in reconciling this hybrid of closeness and remoteness, but Simmel’s clarifications toward the end of this piece shed some light on the subject for me.

The closeness of a stranger can be derived from the recognition of similarities between him and ourselves.  These similarities can be incredibly broad in scope – shared nationality, social position, occupation, or even human nature.  These common traits, however universal they may be, can be a unifying force, connecting us with the stranger.  Indeed, these general similarities simultaneously have the effect of creating distance. The fact that an individual could potentially share these qualities with a multitude of peoples in addition to the stranger prevents the relation from having an “inner and exclusive necessity” (Simmel 128).  The lack of specificity and particularity in the common ground underscores dissimilarity between the individual and the stranger: “the only consciousness of having only the absolutely general in common has exactly the effect of putting a special emphasis on that which is not common” (Simmel 129). Interestingly, this strangeness is not based on the consciousness of difference but rather grounded in the understanding that the established “similarity, harmony, and closeness” are not exclusive to this relation.

Simmel notes that the stranger possesses a unique objectivity as a product of his “remoteness and nearness, indifference and involvement” (Simmel 127).  He is not bound by the opinions, partisan dispositions, and connections to the group, rendering his perspective extremely valuable as an unbiased evaluator of the circumstances.  He embodies a certain freedom, both “practically and theoretically,” that allows him to assess data and situations with less prejudice and allows him to act in a way that is not restrained by the norms and customs of that particular society.  Simmel makes an important distinction: “Objectivity is by no means non-participation, a condition that is altogether outside the distinction between subjective and objective” (127).  However peripheral his perspective, the stranger’s participation is indeed a “positive” one of a mind “working according to its own laws, under conditions that exclude accidental distortions and emphases” (127).

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