"Simmel on 'The Lie'," S: European Journal for Semiotic Studies,Vol. 7:2 (1996), pp. 273-298

by Gordon Welty
Wright State University
Dayton, OH 45435 USA

[//275] The lie has been one of the most fascinating forms of communication since time immemorial. Language was originally viewed as sacred issue: echoing the archaic Memphite Theology of the Egyptian god Ptah, the Gospel John opens "In the beginning was the Word (Logos)," etc. As with any aspects of the sacred, defilement was a mortal sin -- yet there appears to have been an almost irresistible urge to violate the sanctity of the word, to play at the 'trickster' of ethnographic lore. Hence the constant admonishments to avoid lying. The archaic Wisdom Literature of Egypt, for instance, denounces the liar as an "abomination to God."/1/

This intrinsic tension between honesty and deceit within the forms of communication was curiously manipulated by Plato. At one point in the Republic he sharply criticizes lying. He holds that both men and gods hate lies; he denies that a god would ever lie; he suggests that men may occasionally lie for strategic reasons (Republic, 382 a-c). Soon thereafter, however, Plato propounds his 'noble lie' in an effort to undermine the legitimacy of Athenian democracy. He proposes that ideal rulers would systematically lie to their populace: "We shall say in our fictions that all of you in this city are brothers, but the god who fashioned you mixed gold in the composition of those who are fit to rule; he put silver in the deputies, and iron and brass in the farmers and craftsmen. Furthermore, we will allege that there is a prophecy that ruin will befall the city if a man of iron or brass comes to rule" (Republic, 414 d- 415 c). As Gregory Vlastos has put it, "Plato's philosopher-rulers must avoid 'the lie in the soul' [and this] will require them to tell some lies."/2/

On the one hand, the brazenness of this manipulation might be expected, since Plato was kneeling at the altar of oligarchic power in ancient Greece. On the other hand, the thoughtlessness of this manipulation is suggestive that Plato is philosophically unable to account reflexively for the situation of the Other. And that might also account for the woodenness of his 'dialogues.'

If one cannot comprehend an explicitly dyadic social structure, one will not be able to provide a coherent and comprehensive account of [275/276] the lie. One may proscribe lying -- there is certainly enough of this in archaic moralizing -- and one may even prescribe lying, but one will not be able to comprehend the lie as a communicative form, at a theoretically appropriate level of discourse. Following the rise of the 'commercial society,' Adam Smith was able to theorize the dyad./3/ This permitted the consideration of the lie from the standpoint of the liar, and from the standpoint of the lied-to. A particularly interesting attempt theoretically to comprehend the lie is that presented by Georg Simmel in his Soziologie of 1908./4/ We will now consider his presentation in some detail.

Simmel on Objectivization and Truth
Before turning to Simmel's discussion of the lie, it will be necessary to make some preliminary points. The lie cannot simply be explained in terms of the motives of the liar; nor can it be explained in terms of the erroneous conceptions of reality held by the lied-to. The lie is a social relationship, a communicative act. Since lying is an explicitly social form, we must first take note of Simmel's conception of the relationship between consciousness, verbalizations, and truth.

Simmel observes that human consciousness has several stages of increasing objectivization. First, the stream of consciousness is a chaotic whirl of images entirely unrelated to one another, truly a Neo-Kantian plenum [259]. The intellect imposes an order, a set of cognitive categories upon this plenum. In the terms of Charles S. Peirce, we can speak of the semiotics of this constitutive function./5/ A representamen (i.e. a sign, a category) imposes or assigns objects (i.e. meanings) to the plenum on behalf of an interpretant (i.e. the intellect, the actor). The abstract study of signs, i.e. the categories and their objectivizations -- apart from objects and actors -- is Syntactics. The more concrete study of meaningful signs, i.e. the categories in light of their objects, is Semantics. Finally, the most concrete study of signs which are meaningful for a specific set of actors is Pragmatics (not to be confused with the philosophical school of "Pragmatism.") [276/277]

Rather early on, Simmel had held that the constitutive function of mind differed "totally," depending on whether the object of cognition was natural or was social [22]. Later on, perhaps under the increasing influence of the philosophical school of Pragmatism, Simmel softened his account of the differences in cognition of the two kinds of objects, until the constitutive function seemed to depend upon practical exigencies alone [258].

Next, there is the state of verbal objectivization of consciousness, whereby the initially ordered consciousness is given rational expression. That which is expressed is not only a selection from the plenum, but is a purposeful (rather than representative) and social selection at that [259]. The selection determines the stream of consciousness and renders it polysemous (ambiguous) at the same time./6/ One's purpose is pragmatic and even strategic; it is to give expression to this selection in light of the avowed interests of the source of the communication, as well as in light of the imputed interests of the intended audience. Perhaps needless to stress, there is no reason to assume that these several sets of interests will coincide.

Finally, there are higher order objectivizations such as writing./7/ As a point of syntactics, one means of communication is replaced, or perhaps more precisely, dialectically sublated by another./8/ As a point of pragmatics, this higher order of objectivization effectively disrupts the living unity of the group. On the one hand, the subjectivity of the source, the author of the communication is reduced or even eliminated. William Shakespeare is an author of great significance in English culture, for instance, yet as a personality, as subjectivity, he is virtually unknown./9/ On the other hand, the written word heightens the basic characteristics of human communication. In this form, determinateness is heightened; ambiguity is heightened as well [288]./10/

Thus objectivity should not be confused with veracity. Aboriginally, on Simmel's account, the categories of cognition were traditionalistic superstitions which had been "accepted by all" regardless of their rela[277/278]tionship to the object, i.e. the cognitive categories were manifestations of conformity [153]./11/ We will return to the question of whether such traditionalism is compatible with lying. Subsequently, the categories came to be correlated with the object, asymptotically. Even now, according to Simmel, one person's conception of an object differs from that of another, depending upon the personal equation -- that is, the idiosyncratic features of each of the persons and their respective "total circumstances" [257]. And the truth about the object differs -- between the two persons and their perspectives -- too!

Simmel's Account of the Lie
Given this background, let us briefly summarize Simmel's account of the Lie, wherein he makes nine points. (i) He begins with a definition: a lie is a communicative act whereby the source intends a sign to have a signification which will create an erroneous understanding on the part of the audience regarding the source's actual state of mind (i.e. his attitudes, opinions, motives, etc). There is, of course, a profound difference be tween the previously mentioned notion of multiple truths and the present concept of intentional lies. Simmel continues that (ii) different sociological structures "differentiate themselves" according to the measure of lying within each. These measures, he continues, constitute a scale which can be counted off.

Moving to the substantive plane, he argues at some length that (iii) lying is more harmful in complex (i.e. "modern") social formations than it is in primitive formations. Moreover, (iv) lying is more harmful in intimate social relations than in more distant relations [260]. We will merely observe at this point that Simmel takes the complexity of social formations to be recapitulated in the intimacy of social relations; he goes on to say that lying is not only more permissible (Zulassigkeit) under primitive circumstances, but (v) it tends to be expedient (Zweckmassigkeit) as well. Under less developed conditions, Simmel holds, the lie is an effective means of asserting and maintaining control. (vi) For instance, he acknowledges that small-scale retailers tend [278/279] to be deceptive about their merchandise. Under more mature conditions, by contrast, he holds that lying becomes unnecessary. Large-scale traders tend to be truthful (aufrichtig) about their merchandise, on Simmel's account [261].

(vii) Simmel next stresses a profound dualism of human nature: while interaction is based on commonalities among persons or groups -- the archetype of which is shared language -- inter action is no less based on differentiations between persons and groups./12/ A prime instance of the latter is the differential knowledge of the other held by this side when contrasted to that held by that side of a dyadic relationship. This dualism, ac cording to Simmel, is even more profound than the previously cited distinction between the inchoate plenum versus the rational expression we give to it.

Simmel follows this with a resume of his argument for the social functions of conflict and an anticipation of his argument for vitalism. (viii) Social harmony, which Simmel understands to be based on form, must be interspersed with disharmony, which manifests the vital forces of society. He reverts, finally, to his claims about the differential knowledge of the other held by the two sides of a dyad. (ix) Knowledge of another entails, as its dual, concealment from the other -- and Simmel concludes that this justifies the lie [262].

Now we will comment on each of these nine points in turn.

Methodological Reflections on Simmel's Text
Ad i: Simmel is highlighting the specific nature of the lie, in contrast to other forms of falsity. We stress "falsity" rather than "non-truth," because, as Peirce has pointed out, "lies invariably contain this much truth, that they represent themselves to be referring to something whose mode of being is independent of its being represented."/13/ It follows, as Montaigne, in his essay "On Liars," has put it, "if falsehood had, as truth, but one form of appearance [...] we could always take for certain the opposite of what the liar says; but the reverse of [279/280] truth has a hundred thousand forms, and an infinite field."/14/ Consider then the dialectical relation of the lie to deception, and to error. On the one side, the lie is a specific form of deception, which is any action whereby the source (i.e. the actor) deliberately manipulates signs in order to create an erroneous understanding on the part of the audience regarding the source's actual state of mind. As a point of syntactics, deception is the general and the lie is the specific; the cultural form, the verbal objectivization, makes the difference./15/ From the other side, the lie is a specific form of error, which is a mistaken understanding by some party (e.g. the audience) regarding some circumstance (e.g. another party's actual state of mind). As a point of pragmatics, error is the general and the lie is the specific; the intent of the communicator makes the difference [260]. While Simmel's definition accords with the classical conception of the lie -- e.g. that held by Augustine of Hippo in De Mendacio -- he has moreover presented us with a dialectically fertile conception.

Ad ii: Simmel suggests that social structures differ in terms of the "measure of lying" of each. There are several possible interpretations of what it means to "measure" the "lying which exists." Let us bear in mind that lying -- as defined by Simmel -- is a social relation between the liar on the one side, the audience of the lie on the other side, with a deceptive message in between. A lie is perhaps subject to syntactic analysis, but only abstractly./16/ More concretely, a lie is subject to semantic analysis, since duplicitous meaning of signs is crucial to the lie. Further, a lie is still more concretely subject to pragmatic analysis, because duplicity of meaning depends upon differential understandings of the same sign, on the part of the liar and the audience. Finally, a lie is subject to a radical semiotic analysis, because every sign -- and especially one involving duplicity -- can be studied in terms of the interests it promotes or harms. (a) It seems that there is no direct measure of the lying relationship itself, for instance as it is distributed among all relationships present in the social structure. This follows from Simmel's distinction between the two moments of sociation, viz. the life-processual inwardly-given moment of the relation itself and the stable, externally imposed moment of the form [442]. On [280/281] Simmel's Neo-Kantian understanding, the first moment is inherently formless, hence incommensurable; the second moment is formed, discrete, amenable to measurement; to foreground the second as the measure of the former is, however, an inherently one-sided practice.

Therefore we must seek some surrogate, an index, instead of a direct measure of the relationship. Thus we find Simmel mentioning "a scale whereupon measures of intensity can be counted off" [261]. There seem to be two kinds of surrogate which can be considered: objective indices and subjective indices./17/ (b) As an objective index, one could measure the distribution in the social structure of liars -- that is, as Aristotle has put it, those with the character structure which tends to boastfulness or irony./18/ But being a liar, even an habitual one, is a potential for deception rather than the actuality of deception; Simmel is addressing that actuality -- the "lying which exists" -- rather than the potentiality. (c) Consider another objective index; as an exercise in "victimology," one could measure the distribution of those who have been lied-to. This measure would be closer to the actuality of lying -- since it reflects the effects of deceptive action -- than would a measure of the distribution of liars. In Simmel's terms, however, there is still much amiss in focussing on contents of sociation rather than sociation itself [5].

(d) As a final kind of objective index, one could construct a multidimensional model of the lie, incorporating as does Roderick Chisholm for example the dimensions of commission/omission, positive/negative, and simpliciter/secundum quid./19/ Then the relative incidence of the various forms of lies can be assessed, and those distributions can be correlated with selected features of the social structure. While such a set of indices would allow "measures of intensity" of one kind of lie relative to another to be made, it would not permit absolute measures to be made.

Let us turn in our consideration then to a subjective index. (e) One could assess the irresponsible attitudes of the liar, for instance, regarding the integrity of the other (the audience) or (f) the skeptical attitudes or emotional responses of those who had been lied to, re[281/282]garding the protestations of veracity by the liar. In both these cases, however, one is substituting an opinion about a measure for the measure of an opinion. And in any case, it is not clear that an opinion of any sort is what is required.

There is a further possibility which derives from the Moral Sense school. (g) One could measure the extent to which impartial spectators would "readily go along with" the audience in regards to a representative sample of messages, and further measure the extent to which these impartial spectators were misled in their assessment of the three elements of the relation, viz. the messages themselves, the source's apparent intent, and the audience's apparent gullibility./20/ Such a triadic social relationship -- source, audience, and impartial spectator -- and the pragmatics involved in its analysis are clearly not outside Simmel's frame of reference [68-94]. There is little to suggest, however, that he had ever conceptualized "measurement" in such terms, where a specific social role -- "man the measure," the impartial spectator -- was to be involved.

Historical Reflections on Simmel's Text
Ad iii: it appears that Simmel is off the mark here. Lying seems to be more harmful and less permissible in primitive than in modern social formations./21/ We will compare assessments of lying which were held in five epochs, including (a) the Patriarchal Tribal Community of ancient Israel, that of (b) the Graeco-Roman period, (c) the Commercial Tribal Community of early Islam, that of (d) Medieval Feudalism, and that of (e) Competitive Capitalism.

(a) We have already mentioned the archaic Egyptian denunciation of lying. Among the Ancient Israelites, lying was likewise flatly condemned, including in the "Ninth Commandment" of Exodus 20:16 (cf. also Levit. 6; 9:11-12; Deuter. 5:20). Among the half-dozen things the deity hates, according to Proverbs 6:16-19, are a lying tongue, a false witness who breathes out lies. According to Psalms 5:6, "Thou destroyest those who speak lies;" this is echoed in Psalms 63:11, "the mouths of liars will be stopped." [282/283]

(b) During the Graeco-Roman epoch, we find the beginnings of a softening of the archaic strictures against lying. Sophocles, for instance, accepts lying when it is motivated by prudential concerns (Philoctetes, 108 ff). This form of the lie would come to be called the officious lie, i.e. a lie which harmed no one and benefitted someone. This was clearly a transitional period; Augustine of Hippo still maintained an uncompromising opposition to lying, whatever its form./22/ He felt one should not lie, even in the 'officious' cases, holding that people should "accept their sufferings courageously" instead.

(c) By the Seventh Century, we find that hypocrites and liars are condemned in the Qur'an, where it is also noted that the liars' "hearts are divided" (Qur'an, Surah 59:14). But the Commercial Tribal Community introduced further refinements. The Qur'an highlights the primacy of one's intentions over any verbalizations, i.e it stresses the primacy of interiority over exteriority (Surah 2:225; 24:53; 66:2; 68:10).

(d) Thomas Aquinas reflects the standpoint of Medieval Feudalism. He identified a continuum of the 'gravity of sin' in lying; further, he distinguished between those lies which were mortal sins and those which were venial sins./23/ While lying was a sin, there were different severities of that sin.

(e) By the end of the Eighteenth Century we find that William Godwin has the "perception" that the motive to truthfulness is far more prevalent among humans than the motive to lie. In the tacit calculus of the Moral Sense school, Godwin assesses these disparate motives in terms of "the influence [one's] conduct will have upon the stock of the general good."/24/ Similarly, in 1789, Jeremy Bentham defined falsehoods as follows: "they give men to understand that things are otherwise than as in reality they are." He continues that "falsehood, take it by itself, consider it as not being accompanied by any other material circumstances, nor therefore productive of any material effects, can never, upon the principle of utility, constitute any offense at all."/25/ [283/284] In sum, by the beginning of the epoch of Competitive Capitalism, lying is perceived as relatively harmless and relatively permissible.

Thus the acceptability, the permissibility of lying can be seen to have increased throughout history. Meanwhile, the prophylactic against lying, namely the Oath, can be seen to have declining significance during the same epochs.

(a') Among the Israelites, the oath was elaborately ramified, including in the "Third Commandment" (Exodus 20:7); in sum, One shall not break one's word (cf. also Numbers 30). It is suggestive of the relative autonomy of cultural forms that this respect for the oath was preserved throughout the epochs of ancient Judaism. We find it acknowledged by non-Jews as late as Rabbinic times; in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the point is made that "an oath is final" (Hebrews, 6:16).

(b') The oath initially predominated over the written contract even though the Graeco-Roman epoch was literate, hence the co-presence of all parties to a contract was required. The expansion of Roman commerce, however, was reflected in the development of various legal instruments such as the mandatum (i.e. the power of attorney) which -- as Simmel recognized -- went beyond the living unity of the group./26/

(c') By the early Islamic period, the oath had been substantially desacralized. The Qur'an stipulates the primacy of one's oaths over the rule of simple expediency (Surah 16:92-94); but it moreover stresses the primacy of one's intentions over one's oaths.

(d') Thomas Aquinas further elaborated upon the conditionality of the oath. An oath must be made in truth. An oath cannot be made carelessly, nor can it promote injustice, nor can the promised action be carelessly or unjustly enacted; indeed, the action promised in an oath can be dispensed with entirely, under certain conditions./27/

(e') By the epoch of Competitive Capitalism, the significance of the oath had shriveled away. Wm. Godwin, for instance, referred on [284/285] the one side to the "prostitution" of the oath by the Eighteenth Century state to mask the absurdity and inefficiency of legislation. On the other side he referred to the "degradation" occasioned by the oath, whereby one's integrity was to be treated with contempt. Indeed, Godwin concluded that the oath itself was the "cause of insincerity, prevarication, and falsehood."/28/

Three methodological points might be raised here. First, one could question the periodization; do these five epochs appropriately differentiate the "stream of becoming" which we know as history? Next, given the periods, one could question the representativeness of this evidence; do these instances reflect the specificity of each period?/29/ Might some other genre -- for example, folklore -- provide more representative evidence? Finally, given these instances, one could question the hermeneutics of each; e.g. what is the meaning of "lie" in each instance? But each of these points weigh with equal force against Simmel's account of the lie.

There is a semiotic point which should be raised as well. As Simmel unfolds his Soziologie, it becomes clear that a crucial feature of modern society for him is the increasing objectivization of culture, at the expense of subjectivity [152]. This objectivization will occur among the means of communication as well as other cultural spheres. It will be reflected by the declining significance of the verbal utterance and the rising significance of writing, i.e. higher order objectivizations. While such cultural developments will not necessarily bear on the incidence of lying, they will surely bear on the significance of lying and the prophylaxis against lying. As objectivization develops, the possibility of assigning guilt develops as well, and the societal response shifts from a preventive function (e.g. the oath) to punishment alone. Objectivization tends to leave "paper trails;" this enhances both the skepticism of the masses, and the sophistication of the would-be liar. While neither will necessarily diminish the incidence of lying, they will serve to promote various counter-deceptive measures and institutions -- such as videotaping of depositions, and polygraph testing -- which make lying itself more widely expected in modern social formations. [285/286]

Ad iv: as Simmel has indicated, lying is clearly more harmful for the intimate relationship than it is for the more distant one. On the one hand, the most intimate group (i.e. the dyad) fosters a special sense of security between its members. This sense is qualitatively different from that of a larger group [59]. Likewise the dyad fosters a special sense of its vulnerability in contrast to that of larger groups. As Simmel has put it, "for its life, the dyad depends on both its members; but for its death, the dyad depends upon only one" [60]. Lying, like any form of deception, like any form of betrayal, is especially unexpected in face of the sense of security of the most intimate group, and is especially devastating to that group./30/

On the other hand, the "parallel" here is

primitive: modern :: intimate: distant

and emphatically not, as Simmel would have it,

primitive: modern :: distant: intimate.

The intimate relationship depends upon "the whole breadth of personality" [268]. In contrast to the personality of "ancient" times, the "modern" person -- under the impress of the more extensive and intensive division of labor -- has become too differentiated, too "individualized to permit the full reciprocity of understanding, of pure receptivity" [269]. Thus the more limited, distant relationship tends to prevail in the modern social formation.

Ad v: contrary to Simmel's claims, the lie does not appear to be more expedient in primitive than in complex social structures. In the first place, the traditionalism of primitive social forms articulates less well with the rule of expedience than does the modernism of complex forms. Simmel, in his discussion of social circles, echoed Ferdinand Toennies by distinguishing between primary groups and secondary groups./31/ A primary group (Gemeinschaft) is unified, in one of Simmel's favorite phrases, as a terminus a quo [307]. This is not simply a feature of the group. In that primary context, the individual was absorbed by the group; he remained oriented toward the group [319]. A secondary group is, by contrast, organized as a terminus ad quem [286/287] [311]. In this context the person has become individuated; the group is now oriented toward the individual [319]. It is the rational form of the secondary group, with the appearance of being purposive, which foregrounds the rule of expedience [311].

In the second place, it is doubtful that the lie is, as Simmel supposes, a "means to intellectual (geistig) superiority" [261]. In this he was probably echoing Friedrich Nietzsche./32/ On the contrary, it has always been held that veracity was the prerogative of power, and duplicity was the hallmark of weakness. As already noted, the deity of the ancient Israelites was held to be above lying; Plato acknowledged that the gods never lie. Furthermore, Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have claimed "I am the truth" (John 14:6). By contrast, as David Wise has observed of such a seemingly powerful entity as the U.S. government, "it lies to stay in power."/33/ Thus the lie seems to be increasingly viewed as an expedient, and this view seems to be held by those who are insecure in their positions.

Ad vi: Simmel extends his argument about the expediency of lying under primitive conditions to the field of commercial relations. Again it appears that Simmel is off the mark. He acknowledges that the small firm engages in duplicitous trade practices while he maintains that the large enterprise engages in ethical practices. Contrary to Simmel's claims, however, it is highly doubtful that the incidence of lying, or more generally, deception declines with the growth of the enterprise.

It is difficult to gather evidence on this topic for several reasons. First, the larger the enterprise, the more resources it has to devote to covering-up its illegal activities, including deceptive activities. Thus we should expect a substantial under reporting of the actual incidence of corporate crime. Second, the larger the enterprise, the more influence it wields in the councils of state -- and especially in the prosecutor's office. Hence we should also expect under-enforcement of such laws as exist against corporate criminals./34/ Nonetheless, there is some tantalizing evidence which bears on this issue. [287/288]

The classic study of "white collar crime" was that of Edwin Sutherland in the late Thirties./35/ He studied the illegal activities of seventy (70) of the largest U.S. corporations over an extended time period -- an average of 45 years per corporation. Recall that Simmel expected that large-scale commercial enterprises would "offer their wares with complete sincerity" [261]. On the contrary, Sutherland found almost ten percent of all violations charged to these seventy corporations involved the criminal activity of "misrepresentation in advertising."/36/ Leading the list of offenders were such retailing giants as Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Gimbels, Procter and Gamble, and Macy; also included among the leaders was Armour (in the meat-packing industry). The vast majority of violations were recorded during the last decade of his study./37/ However, as Sutherland points out, "this does not justify the conclusion that false advertising has been more prevalent in the later years;"/38/ he finds this to be suggestive instead that there was lax law enforcement during the earlier years covered by his study. Let us simply note that these findings have been corroborated again and again./39/ Thus we must conclude, contrary to Simmel, that lying characterizes commercial relations regardless of the size -- the growth -- of the enterprise.

Sociological Reflections on Simmel's Text
Ad vii: When Simmel maintains that language is the essential instrument of the commonalities among persons, we wonder if he realized that language is no less the essential instrument of the differentiations between persons. For instance, the archetypal element of the differential knowledge of the self is what is kept secret to that self (or about that self) -- i.e. that which is unrevealed to any other. But the essential instrument of this secrecy is also language. As Simmel puts it "if human sociation is conditioned by the ability to speak [...] it is shaped through the ability to be silent" [285 n.]. Linguistically, then, silence is the form of secrecy; the secret itself is the content. The "elements known to only one" person are the elements which are the objects of silence [261]. And that silence ("muteness") is a decisive aspect of [288/289] language./40/ Thus both commonality and differentiation have their archetype in shared language -- in the form of speech or silence. Neither the common nor the different should be reified.

Ad viii: Simmel indicates that social relations have a dual determination; concord and harmony must be interspersed with conflict and competition, so as to give "the actual configuration of society" [262]. In this case, Simmel appears to be confounding the determinants of social equilibrium with the equilibria themselves (or the lack thereof, i.e. disequilibria). On the one hand, the "actual configuration of society" is determined by the complex of social relationships. That configuration need not be an equilibrium state; many times it is a state of disequilibrium, it represents a "revolutionary rupture," if you will. For sake of discussion, however, we can grant to Simmel that the "actual configuration" may manifest "harmony" interspersed with "repulsion."

On the other hand, the social relationships take several forms, depending upon the relative interests of the interrelated members (be they individuals, groups, etc.) As Simmel has stressed, these forms include Cooperation, Competition, and Conflict, depending on interests which are Harmonious, Indifferent, or Hostile [194]. Three points follow. First, these three forms of social relationship, and their associated interests, have long been recognized as the constituents of the social order. Adam Smith analysed the social order in similar terms in his Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759. And this discussion has continued until today./41/ Second, these trichotomies are, in Peirce's terms, genuine trichotomies which cannot be reduced ("degenerated") to sets of dichotomies./42/ Consider: at one point Simmel holds that hostile and harmonious interests are fundamentally distinguished in their positivity from indifferent interests with their negativity [186]. This is one dichotomy, which pits competition against the other two forms. He subsequently holds that harmonious cooperation is to be distinguished from repulsion and competition -- quite another dichotomy, pitting cooperation against the other two forms [262]. Our final point is that any one of these forms, and its associated set of interests, can [289/290] bring about social equilibrium; for example, conflict between warring nations can eventuate in stalemate. Likewise, any one of these forms can bring about disequilibrium; for in stance, the most nurturant cooperation between parent and child can eventuate in the young adult leaving the home in search of a career.

Ad ix: there can be no question that social relations entail both mutual revelation and mutual concealment. Both are aspects of the management of the person, the presentation of the self -- itself an essential component of self-mastery./43/ The persona is the mask, the representation of the self. The personality is the continuant which holds the persona(e) before its public. Thus the self is never directly presented to the other, but is always presented through the 'filter,' if you will, of the personality. This persona, by the way, can highlight either that which one believes is distinctive from others, or that which is typical [61]. Thus intimacy is not yet immediacy. In the management of the persona, one more or less self-consciously reveals and conceals. Soon after the age of three, the child begins to manifest this 'social' behavior./44/

A crucial component of one's interests in this representational behavior among adults is to preserve, to maintain the integrity of one's self. This is only a component, however, not the totality of one's interests; otherwise one would hardly bother with the elaborate representation. Another component is the preservation of the integrity of the other -- if not for altruistic motives, then at least to ensure one the continuity of one's relational other. Moreover, in a social relationship, the management of the persona is multilateral, with each element of the relation engaging in representational behavior from one's own side, in light of one's anticipation of representations from the other side(s). Thus one's concern for the integrity of the self must correspond to an appreciation of the integrity of the other -- a point that Hegel had profoundly understood./45/ The lie in many if not all of its manifestations reflects an objectification of the other -- based either on contempt or paternalism toward the other. Hence, contrary to Simmel, [290/291] the lie cannot be construed as a possible means of promoting social relationships.

We must now inquire into the reasons for the ultimately unsatisfactory quality of Simmel's discussion of the lie. The basic reason, it seems, is that Simmel tended to interpret social life -- including communication -- as patterns of exchange between 'free' individuals. It has been widely observed that Simmel conceived of the exchange relationship as the most fundamental form of social interaction. He went so far as to inter pret many forms of dominance in terms of exchange.

Thus dominance was taken as the content of the exchange form. This is amply illustrated when, in the Part of Soziologie which treats of Dominance, Simmel argues that even coercion can be understood in terms of voluntary exchange [102]. This extreme may be taken as symptomatic of commodity fetishism. And that is suggestive that Simmel's analysis suffers from a grand inversion, whereby the determining relation between content and form has been inverted. Rather than the social interpretation -- whereby the primacy of domination is recognized as distorting its con tent, including exchange and communication -- Simmel has presented a thoroughly aestheticized interpretation.

Such an interpretation would lead to the expectation that `commercial society' represented the endpoint of human history. However, lying cannot be interpreted as a form of exchange. Indeed, it is antithetical to exchange. The process of exchange between `free' individuals is hardly without its own presuppositions, for instance that these individuals are norm takers, that is act so that a whole series of value terms (e.g. `price,' the conventional signification of the sign, `quality,' etc.) will be established within the public framework of the institution, i.e. the market./46/ Under these conditions, price movements have an informational function -- they redirect resource use and consumption patterns. [291/292]

By contrast, the process of lying presupposes that at least one of the individuals (the liar) is a norm maker, that is, acts so that some of the value terms -- while seeming to the other (deceived) individuals to have been publicly established within the institution -- are in fact established privately, outside the institutional framework. The signs come to have strategic significance. In other words, theorizing the dyad is necessary but not sufficient for understanding lying.

In the face of this antinomy, Simmel had to gloss over the reality of lying -- that it is becoming increasingly tolerated in today's world -- hence the reality that anti-exchange relationships are becoming more prevalent in modern society. Thus Simmel ambivalently represents lying on the one hand as declining in the face of the "perfection" of exchange brought about by big business; and on the other hand as becoming ever more harmful in today's "credit" economy. Simmel's claim of perfection means that lying is going to be less and less significant for society in the future; his claims about the credit economy mean that anti-exchange relationships are still not tolerable. His thinking merely reflects, reproduces that antinomy.

We need not stress that there were alternative visions regarding the development of modern society. During Simmel's time, German society moved into the stage of finance or monopoly capitalism, a stage wherein the exchange relationship was definitively sublated within various dominance and exploitative structures. This was discussed at length, notably in Rudolf Hilferding's Das Finanzkapital of 1910. A similar -- if less sophisticated -- discussion was developing in the United States. By the Twenties, we find Stuart Chase discussing the topic of the `New Competition,' which has several dimensions above and beyond the traditional dimension of peer competition. These dimensions included vertical competition, where industries are organized from the extractive stage to the marketing outlet (e.g. Ford Motor Co.), etc./47/ The strategic control of communication, in the form of advertising through the mass media, had come to the fore. Had Simmel reflected on these developments, he would have realized that social analysis restricted to exchange relationships is inadequate to [292/293] the task of understanding modern society and its communication processes. As a byproduct of this insight, he might also have realized that a more robust analysis --- commencing with patterns of dominance and exploitation -- would be necessary for the comprehension of the lie as well.


1. E.A. Wallis Budge The Teaching of Amen-em-apt London: M. Hopkinson (1924). The first monotheism, Mazdaism, devotes its most archaic Gathas (Psalms) to extolling veracity and condemning deceit (Avesta, Yasna 30). Similarly, Buddhism rejects lying, e.g. as expressed in the Hinayana form of the Dhammapada, 306, "He who says what is not, will go to Hell" and in the Mahayana form of the Lotus of the True Law, XIII:39, "The wise man must absolutely renounce falsehood." See Max Mueller (ed.) Sacred Books of the East Oxford: Clarendon Press, Vol. 31, Vol. 10; Vol. 21 (1884).

I would like to thank Professor Howard Parsons for his helpful comments at this point and throughout the rest of the essay. Of course, he is not responsible for any errors remaining, nor for the interpretations.

2. Gregory Vlastos "Justice and Happiness in the Republic" in G. Vlastos (ed.) Plato Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, Vol. II (1971), p. 78; also G. Vlastos "The Argument in the Republic that `Justice Pays'," Journal of Philosophy Vol. 65 (1968), p. 668; Friedrich Nietzsche has generalized this: "neither Manu, nor Plato, nor Confucius, nor the Jewish and Christian teachers ever doubted their right to lie;" cf. his Gotzen-Daemmerung (1889), in: Werke Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, Abt. 6, Bd. 2 (1969), p. 96.

3. Adam Smith Works and Correspondence Oxford: Clarendon Press, Vol. I (1976), pp. 9-23; cf. also Gordon Welty "Moral y Konkurencia" Novo Vreme No. 12 (1991), pp. 30-38.

4. Georg Simmel Soziologie (6th ed.) Berlin: Duncker and Humblot (1983). Bracketed page references in the text -- e.g. [259] -- refer to this volume. See also his earlier "Zur Psychologie und Soziologie der Luege" Ethische Kultur Bd. 7 (1899).

5. Charles S. Peirce Collected Papers Cambridge: Harvard U.P., Vol. 2 (1932), pp. 134-135. See also Charles Wm. Morris "Foundations of the [293/294] Theory of Signs" in O. Neurath (ed.) International Encyclopedia of Unified Science Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Vol. I (1955), p. 81 ff.

6. Adam Smith observed in 1763 that "language at all times must be somewhat ambiguous;" cf. his Works and Correspondence Vol. V (1978), p. 88; also Vol. IV, p. 205 ff. Cf. also Montesquieu Oeuvres completes, Paris: Editions du Seuil (1964), p. 602: "Les discours sont si sujects interpretation."

7. Writing emerged some five millennia ago in Mesopotamia, according to D. Schmandt-Besserat "The Emergence of Recording" American Anthropologist Vol. 84 (1982), pp. 875-876; see also her Before Writing Austin: University of Texas Press, Vol. 1 (1992).

8. Cf. Lev Vygotsky Thought and Language Cambridge: MIT Press (1962), p. 98.

9. Cf. Harold Adams Innis Empire and Communication, Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1972), p. 10 on the emergence of the "transpersonal." On Shakespeare, see Peter Levi The Life and Times of William Shakespeare NY: Holt (1988).

10. In agreement with Simmel here, Smith has stated "writing is no natural expression of our thoughts [such as the spoken word is] and therefore is more dubious and not so settled in meaning;" Works and Correspondence, Vol. V, p. 91. Arthur Schopenhauer, by contrast, disagrees with Simmel on this point; cf. Schopenhauer's Samtliche Werke Stuttgart: Cotta-Insel Verlag, Bd. 1 (1960), p. 346. This has recently been revived as an issue in the highly depersonalized computer networks with their "electronic mail;" see John Quarterman and J.C. Hoskins "Notable Computer Networks," Communications of the ACM Vol. 29:10 (1986), pp. 932-971.

11. "Lying is not a function of conformity," according to Miriam G. Wardle and D.S. Gloss "Effects of Lying and Conformity on Decision-Making Behavior," Psychological Reports Vol. 51:3 (1982), p. 874; see also Leslie T. Francis et al "Religiosity and Lie Scores" Social Behavior and Personality Vol. 16:1 (1988), p. 93.

12. Simmel is echoing Kant here, who contrasts Occam's "Razor" (i.e. the Principle of Generalization) to the Principle of Specification: see Kritik der reinen Vernunft Riga: Hartknoch (1787), p. 678 ff. Simmel tends to stress the second Principle at the expense of the first.

13. Peirce Collected Papers, Vol. 6 (1935), p. 73.

14. Michel de Montaigne Oeuvres completes, Paris: Editions du Seuil (1967), p. 31; see also Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica [Part II, ii, Q. 110, Art. 1] NY: Benziger Bros, Vol. 10 (1922), pp. 86-87. [294/295]

15. Cf. Hugonis Grotius De Jure Belli et Pacis in Libri Tres Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Lib. III (1853), Cap. I, Art. viii, p. 17 ff.

16. Earl Dulaney "Changes in Language Behavior as a Function of Veracity" Human Communication Research Vol. 9:1 (1982), pp. 75-82 finds lying to be correlated with a decrease in lexical diversity: fewer words, fewer unique words, fewer past tense verbs, etc.

17. On this distinction, see Peirce Collected Papers, Vol. 5 (1935), p. 318 where he discusses "factual behavior" versus "subjective feelings."

18. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1127 a 26; see also Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica [Part II, ii, QQ. 112-113], op. cit., Vol. 10 (1922), pp. 109-117; and James Nash "The Fisherman Syndrome" Psychotherapy - Patient Vol. 4 (1988), pp. 281-294.

19. See Roderick M. Chisholm and T.D. Feehan "The Intent to Deceive" Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 74 (1977), pp. 143-145.

20. Smith Works and Correspondence, Vol. I, p. 294, where he indicates that a "precise and distinct measure can be found nowhere but in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and informed spectator."

21. There is ontogenetic evidence which exhibits the same trends towards permissiveness as does the phylogenetic evidence we will now adduce; cf. Candida C. Peterson et al, "Developmental Changes in Ideas about Lying," Child Development Vol. 54:6 (1983), pp. 1529-1535; also Magda Stouthamer-Loeber and R. Loeber "Boys who Lie," Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology Vol. 14:4 (1986), pp. 551-564.

22. Augustine De Mendacio, Cap. XIV, 25; available in Treatises on Various Subjects NY: Fathers of the Church (1952), p. 87.

23. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica [Part II, ii, Q. 110, Arts. 2, 4], op. cit., Vol. 10, p. 90, p. 96.

24. William Godwin Enquiry Concerning Political Justice London: Robinson, Vol. 1 (1798), p. 195, p. 197.

25. Jeremy Bentham A Fragment on Government and An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Oxford: Blackwell (1960), p. 329, p. 330.

It is of interest that the Book of Mormon -- first published in 1830 but purportedly compiled in the archaic Israelite epoch -- addresses lying in terms more congenial to the epoch of Competitive Capitalism than those of the archaic epoch. For in stance, to "lie a little" is condemned (2 Nephi 28:8), suggesting a modernistic scale of the gravity of verbal deceit. Later a very Cartesian hypothesis that the "Creator [was] a liar from the beginning" is introduced (Alma 5:25), to counterfactually emphasize that sinners will be damned. Again, such an utterance -- whether counterfactual [295/296] or not -- would be blasphemous in the archaic epoch. We are reminded of Eduard Meyer Urspruenge und Geschichte der Mormonen Halle: Neimeyer (1912), p. 10: the authors of these revelations are "common swindlers."

26. On the Roman contract, see Justinian Institutes, III, 19, 12; available in Paulus Kruger (ed.) Corpus Juris Civilis Zurich: Weidmann (1970), p. 24. Augustine reflected the predominance of written testaments over spoken oaths in his De Mendacio, Cap. V.

27. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica [Part II, ii, Q. 89, Arts. 3,7,9], op. cit., Vol. 9, pp. 139-152.

28. Wm. Godwin Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. 2 (1798), pp. 262-266.

It is worth noting that the Book of Mormon characterizes "oaths" in the modernistic sense of the conspiracies of secret societies and monopolistic combinations against competition (cf. Alma 37:27; 37:29; Helaman 6:30; Ether 8:20, etc.), rather than in the archaic sense of a divinely sanctioned prophylactic against lying. As Theodor Adorno has put it "within the pattern of modern mass delusions, the idea of conspiracies is always present -- an idea doubtlessly of a projective nature," in his Gesammelte Schriften Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, Bd. 9:2 (1975), p. 79. We recall Max Weber Economy and Society Berkeley: University of California Press (1978), p. 1112: such a religious revelation is a "rank swindle."

29. Gordon Welty "Concrete versus Ideal Types," Bangladesh Sociological Review Vol. 1 (1989), pp. 11-28.

30. Steven McCornack and T.R. Levine "When Lies are Uncovered" Communication Monographs Vol. 57:2 (1990), pp. 119-138.

31. Ferdinand Toennies Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft Leipzig: Fues Verlag (1887); see also Yoshio Atoji "Ferdinand Toennies and Georg Simmel" Sociologica Vol. 7 (1983), pp. 1-40. Charles H. Cooley discussed "primary groups" in Social Organization NY: Scribner's (1909), Ch. 3; Ellsworth Faris popularized the polar concept of "secondary groups" in his "Primary Group: Essence and Accident" American Journal of Sociology Vol. 38 (1932).

32. Friedrich Nietzsche Werke Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, Abt. 7, Bd. 3 (1974), p. 362.

33. David Wise The Politics of Lying NY: Vintage Books (1973), p. 40. Two recent episodes are surely worthy of note. The first incident involves the lies about U.S. diplomatic negotiations with Saddam Hussein in July 1990, which lies helped legitimate the vicious U.S. and Israeli sponsored attack on Iraq in January 1991. See Andrew Alexander "Senators [say] Ex-diplomat Misled Us," Dayton Daily News (July 13, 1991); also Gordon Welty "The Gulf Crisis and the United Nations," University of Dayton Review, Vol. 21:2 (1991), pp. 75-85.

The second incident involves the lies about [296/297] Iraqi theft of Kuwaiti infant incubators, which lies helped mobolize American public opinion behind George Bush's Gulf War. See John MacArthur "Remember Nayirah, Witness for Kuwait?" New York Times (January 6, 1992), p. A-11.

34. See Edwin H. Sutherland White Collar Crime New Haven: Yale University Press (1983), pp. 127-129 and pp. 234-239.

35. Cf. also Markus Binder "Weisse Kragen Kriminalitt," Kriminalistik Bd. 16 (1962), S. 251-256.

36. Sutherland, op. cit., pp. 16-18; on his use of the term "criminal," see p. 49.

37. Sutherland, op. cit., p. 24.

38. Sutherland, op. cit., p. 123.

39. See, for example, Marshall B. Clinard and P.C. Yeager Corporate Crime NY: Free Press (1980). As the retired corporate executive, John Cohane has put it, "Deceit is the accepted order of the hour," Los Angeles Times (October 1, 1972). Max Weber appears to be echoing Simmel when he writes of "the growth in social and economic importance of the reliability of the given word," Economy and Society, p. 430.

40. Edwin Ardener "Belief and the Problem of Women," in S. Ardener (ed.) Perceiving Women London: Malaby (1975); also Lila Abu-Lughod "Anthropology's Orient" in H. Shirabi (ed.) Theory, Politics, and the Arab World NY: Routledge (1990), pp. 81-131.

41. Smith Works and Correspondence. Vol. I, pp. 85-86; more recently, A. Etzioni The Active Society NY: Free Press (1968), p. 96 and note 4, p. 126.

42. Peirce Collected Papers Vol. 1 (1931), pp. 182-193 on "Trichotomies," and pp. 280-286 on "genuine" and "degenerate" forms thereof.

43. Russell Meares and W. Orlay "On Self-Boundary" British Journal of Medical Psychology Vol. 61:4 (1988), pp. 305-316.

44. John Morton "When can Lying Start?" Issues in Criminological and Legal Psychology No. 13 (1988), pp. 35-36; see also M. Chandler et al. "Small-scale Deceit" Child Development Vol. 60 (1989), pp. 1263-1277; and B. Sodian et al. "Early Deception and the Child's Theory of the Mind" Child Development Vol. 62 (1991), pp. 468-483.

45. G.W.F. Hegel Phaenomenologie des Geistes Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag (1952), pp. 299-300; also G. Lukacs Der junge Hegel Neuweid: Luchterhand Verlag (1966), pp. 585-586 on the relationship between Hegel's dialectic of interpersonal relations and Adam Smith's theorizing. In games of strategy, as my teacher Oskar Morgenstern used to stress, it is poor strategy to assume your opponent is less able than you are. [297/298]

46. See Gordon Welty "Pareto's Theory of Elites" Revue international de sociologie (1993).

47. Stuart Chase and F.J. Schlink Your Money's Worth NY: Macmillan (1935), Chap. II. [298//]