Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chapter One, The Philosophy of Money

As part of my continuing attempt to be more educated in classical sociology, I’m beginning to read Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money. I have so far read the first chapter of this rather large book. This chapter is an enormous amount of philosophical ground-preparation, about subjectivity, objectivity, relativism, and value--and then about ten pages discussing money in the vocabulary so constituted. Simmel is a frustrating writer. Yet he’s rewarding, if only for the occasional passage like this one,

All general and particular systems of knowledge meet in this form of the mutual interdependence of thought processes. If one attempts to understand the political, social, religious or any other cultural aspects of the present time, this can be achieved only through history, i.e. by knowing and understanding the past. But this past, which comes down to us only in fragments, through silent witnesses and more or less unreliable reports and traditions, can come to life and be interpreted only through the experiences of the immediate present. No matter how many transformations and quantitative changes are required, the present, which is the indispensable key to the past, can itself be understood only through the past; and the past, which alone can help us to understand the present, is accessible only through the perceptions and sensibilities of the present. All historical images are the result of this mutuality of interpretative elements, none of which allows the others to come to rest. Ultimate comprehension is transferred to infinity, since every point in one series refers to the other series for its understanding. (pg 110)

I have not yet looked at the substantial (monograph-sized) introduction to this translation, but Simmel is working within an explicitly Kantian horizon. I don’t know enough to be able to judge what he is doing more finely than that.

His treatment of relativism is satisfyingly thoroughgoing. The Comtean-Durkheimian sociological relativism that I am more used to seems always to pull up before crashing into the more serious consequences of this line of thought. Simmel is adamant, and iterates a similar point often: it is true to say that the apple is falling towards the Earth, but it is also true to say that the Earth is falling toward the apple. In a familiar (common at this moment) formulation, he says that Science “has abandoned the search for the essence of things and is reconciled to stating the relationships that exist between objects and the human mind from the viewpoint of the human mind” (101). Hi handling of norms and laws, of objectivity through relativity—all this smacks of a slightly different tradition of philosophy of science than the French that I’m more familiar with—when he discusses measurement, it seems to owe something to Fechner, but perhaps I think this because Fechner’s is one of the few theories of measurement I’ve read anything about.

He gets, at the end of the chapter, finally to a set of definitions of money,

In this sense, money has been defined as ‘abstract value’. As a visible object, money is the substance that embodies abstract economic value, in a similar fashion to the sound of words which is an acoustic-physiological occurrence but has significance for us only through the representation that it bears or symbolizes. If the economic value of objects is constituted by their mutual relationship of exchangeability, then money is the autonomous expression of this relationship. Money is the representative of abstract value. From the economic relationship, i.e. the exchangeability of objects, the fact of this relationship is extracted and acquires, in contrast to those objects, a conceptual existence bound to a visible symbol. Money is a specific realization of what is common to economic objects—in the language of the scholastics one might call it universale ante rem, or in re or post rem—and the general misery of human life is most fully reflected by this symbol, namely by the constant shortage of money under which most people suffer. (118)

The last cryptic bit is made more clear, perhaps, by this,

For money represents pure interaction in its purest form; it makes comprehensible the most abstract concept; it is an individual thing whose essential significance is to reach beyond individualities. Thus, money is the adequate expression of the relationship of man to the world, which can only be grasped in single and concrete instances, yet only really conceived when the singular becomes the embodiment of the living mental process which interweaves all singularities and, in this fashion, creates reality. (128)
No wonder it is also the symbol of our misery.

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