Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2014

The Black Pushkin and The Blackamoor of Peter the Great

Alexander Pushkin was descended from Ibrahim Gannibal (1696-1781), a black page kidnapped and brought back from “Lagon” in Africa–possibly either in modern-day Cameroon or Ethiopia. Given as a gift to Peter the Great, the emperor became Ibrahim’s godfather and brought him up as a noble with education and responsibility. Ibrahim became a captain in the army, wrote on geometry and engineering, and was called “the dark star of the Enlightenment” by Voltaire.

Ibrahim was possibly Pushkin’s great-grandfather on both parents’ side, at least according to this essay. Pushkin’s black heritage seems a bit better-known than, say, George Herriman’s (and Pushkin was more open about it than Herriman), but it hasn’t sufficiently passed into common knowledge for Jonathan Gill, the author of Harlem: the 400 Year History, not to write that “J. A. Rogers saw everything through the lens of race, insisting that even Beethoven and Pushkin were black.”1

In 1827, Pushkin started a fictionalized romantic history of his ancestor, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, dubbing Ibrahim “the son of a black sultan,” thus noble through and through. He abandoned it after about thirty pages, so what’s left is more or less just the setup for an ensuing drama that was never written. What got written, though, is fascinating. Ibrahim is a likable, suave, and thoughtful nobleman who goes to Paris for a time (culture! education!) before returning to St. Petersburg in the early 1720s. While in Paris, he romances the Countess D., and they fall seriously in love with each other. She also gets pregnant, to the scandal of everyone save her oblivious husband: “men took bets on whether the Countess would give birth to a white or black baby.” Disaster is averted when the (black) baby is swapped with the newborn of a destitute woman, and Ibrahim’s son is raised far far away.

Thus the public, which had anticipated an uproarious scandal, was frustrated in its expectations and had to content itself with mere vilifications.

Ibrahim, displaying characteristic caution, decides it best to leave the Countess before (a) her husband finds out, or (b) the Countess grows tired of him. Ibrahim does not foresee his own love dying, but he’s sufficiently alarmed by the prospect of losing her that “the torments of separation would probably be less painful.” Though brutally matter-of-fact to himself, he handles the matter with spectacular grace in his Dear D. letter to the Countess:

My happiness could not last. I have enjoyed it in defiance of fate and nature. You were bound to cease loving me: the enchantment was bound to vanish…Society, with its fickle ways, persecutes in practice what it permits in theory: its cold mockery would have sooner of later overpowered you, it would have humbled your soaring spirit, and you would have in the end have grown ashamed of your passion…What would then have become of me? No1 I’d sooner die, I’d sooner leave you, than wait for that terrible moment…

Your tranquility is dearest of all to me, and you could not enjoy it while the gaze of society was fixed on us…Just think: should I subject you to the same worries and dangers even longer? Why struggle to unite the fate of such a tender and graceful creature with the unlucky lot of a Negro, a pitiful being, scarcely granted the title of man?

The Countess is upset but gets over it and takes a new lover. Ibrahim responds with the resignation that he did the right thing but wishes it hadn’t been the right thing:

What sensations filled Ibrahim’s heart? Jealousy? Rage? Despair? No; rather a deep benumbed feeling of depression. He kept repeating to himself: I foresaw this; this had to happen…He wept for al long time. The tears eased his sorrow. Then, looking at his watch, he realized it was time to go.

Ibraham’s sensible circumspection contrasts with very nearly every other character in the Pushkin oeuvre, not to mention the dominant archetypes of Russian literature in general, who tend much more toward the passionate than the hyper-rational. He also contrasts with the bumbling fop Korsakov, a friendly though callous noble back from Paris who doesn’t know Russian matters and is soon humiliated at a ball through a ritual fraternity-style hazing presided over by Peter himself. Korsakov’s mistake was in trying to dance with the young Natasha, whom Peter soon decides would make a great bride for Ibrahim, and so suggests a marriage. Ibrahim initially demurs, but after Peter insists, Ibrahim starts to entertain the idea:

To marry! And why not? Or am I destined to spend my life in solitude, never experiencing the greatest joys and most sacred obligations of a man, just because I was born below the fifteenth parallel? I cannot hope to be loved, but that is a childish objection. Can one trust love in any case?…The Emperor is right: I must ensure my future…I will not demand love from my wife: i shall be content with her fidelity. As for her friendship, I will win it by unfailing tenderness, trust, and indulgence.

Natalia’s family is horrified. “Don’t throw Natashnka into the clutches of that black devil,” cries her grandmother. But her grandfather accedes, for three reasons. First, the Emperor has asked; second, the Emperor promises great favor to his whole family; and third, Natalia is in love with Valerian, an orphan of lower origins whom her family took in. Her grandfather is so horrified by her love for Valerian that he decides that marriage to Ibrahim is the best course to stave off his daughter’s unfortunate passion. Natasha is thoroughly repulsed and takes sick just to avoid Ibrahim, only to find out that her family is now apparently entranced with him. (Her aunt says, “What a pity he’s black; otherwise we couldn’t wish for a better bridegroom.”) This is, she realizes, because of her love for Valerian, and she is stuck.

Only one hope remained for her: to die before the hateful marriage came to pass. This idea comforted her. She submitted to her fate with a faint, sorrowful heart.

And that’s where Pushkin stopped. Pushkin’s friend A. N. Wulf wrote that “The main intrigue of the novel, as Pushkin says, will be the sexual infidelity of the Negro’s wife, who gives birth to a white child, and is punished by being banished to a convent”–an inversion of the earlier adulterous pregnancy. (Indeed, this did indeed happen with the real Ibrahim’s first wife, who went to jail for ten years.) Would the father be Valerian? Korsakov?

Even in the short fragment, two contrasting portrayals repeat. First, Ibrahim as the superior noble, favored by Peter, adored by the Countess, possessed of rare intelligence and wisdom easily besting that of fools like Korsakov and Valerian, traits for which he is recognized not only by the Emperor but by most of the characters. Second, Ibrahim as the curiosity and outsider, given the gifts of nobility yet sealed off from familial and amorous integration with the native population among which he lives. It is not until the Emperor proposes the marriage that Ibrahim even considers the possibility of starting a lineage and becoming a patriarch.

The opposing portrayals meet in the reaction to the marriage: while Natasha’s family disdains Ibrahim on racist grounds, her grandfather still prefers him (in a second) over a lower-class heel like Valerian. Ibrahim becomes the instrument by which the lower class can be kept out of the family and their nobility preserved. This time, class trumps race. This was to end in the irony that a white baby would signify Natasha’s infidelity and betrayal, and would presumably meet with a worse fate than the secret but treasured son of Countess D. Yet both these relationships are less inflected by race than his relations with most people. He considers himself an object of curiosity to most: “As a rule, people looked at the young black man as if he were some strange phenomenon.” He even resents the affections of women because of this, as “He felt that in their eyes he was a kind of rare animal,” and he dislikes being fetishized in that way. Yet on the next page the narrator intercedes and tells us that many women do see him “with feelings more flattering than mere curiosity, though he in his prejudice either did not notice anything or fancied only flirtation.” It takes the Countess’ guileless attention to dissolve his suspicions and allow him to fall in love.

So Pushkin tells us explicitly that for all his intelligence, there are limits to what Ibrahim knows of other people’s thoughts, and he cannot always distinguish genuine affection from fetishistic curiosity. The question, then, is whether this is the source of Ibrahim’s doubts about the Countess. His performance regarding her, in relationship and in separation, is seamless, but when he worries that the Countess is capricious, is the caprice in matters of love alone, or with regard to her perception of race as well? Does he fear that he will fall out of being viewed as a human and become a curiosity again? The same confusion ironically comes to light in Natasha’s loathing of Ibrahim, which, because it originates from her love of Valerian, obscures whether she sees him as a curiosity or merely as the guy she’s being forced to marry. And despite Peter’s good will, Natasha’s family goes through with the marriage because of his identity as a noble, which sufficiently overshadows his race, yet also reduces him to a single dimension.

There is an undercurrent of race-as-epistemic-confusion, because the introduction of a new social category (race) knocks existing categories (class, family role, even lover) off-kilter, and not in predictable or unidirectional ways. Translator Peter Debreczeny suggests that inconsistency and general confusion, particularly with regard to Ibrahim’s character, prevented Pushkin from continuing the novel. It’s hard to say. But while Eugene Onegin may be the more sharply-drawn and memorable character, I find Ibrahim to be the more mysteriously evocative.

  1. J. A. Rogers (1880-1966) was quite a character, though. Henry Louis Gates writes:

    If America hadn’t already invented the “one-drop rule” by this time, Rogers most probably would have. He seems to have had some sort of miscegenation-meter, which he used to “out” all sorts of “white” people as having black ancestry. And while he erred on the side of excess as he peered into the proverbial woodpile, Rogers got it right an impressive amount of the time, especially considering when he was publishing his work. (At the other end of his collected works, though, stands The Five Negro Presidents, which, shall we say, would get the “Black History Wishful Thinking Prize,” hands down, were there such in existence.)

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money

[Continuing from my Introduction to Simmel’s Philosophy of Money.]

The first part (of six) of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money is the most abstract and the most philosophical. The whole book never quite descends to earth, but it’s at the beginning that he comes closest to Kantian transcendental-style arguments about how the categories of value affect our cognition of the world, though he ironically uses these in the service of attacking the a priori and theories of the a priori. And the central theme he uses is the idea of commensurability: that money provides the lubrication to reconcile and ultimately synthesize systems of value that are initially entirely distinct and incommensurable. It is without a doubt the hardest-going of the six parts, but it is the necessary foundation for everything that comes after, and possibly the most original and far-reaching.

We assign value to a human life, an animal, a romantic relationship, a friendship, to food, to sex–but by instinct and by the initial circumstances of human culture, these values are only very loosely comparable if at all, and quantifying the values and exchanging between them is something that either rarely comes up or is painful and dispute-ridden when it does. Limited ad hoc systems of exchange spring up, but they are arbitrary and unsatisfactory, and thus impossible to adjudicate consistently. Think of the Iliad and Achilles’ demand for some sort of compensation for the loss he’s suffered when Agamemnon took away Briseis from him. The arguments are vague, the values are ill-specified, and ideas of fairness and logic are inchoate. Value is not given to us by nature; it is human-generated in the messiest manner imaginable:

Their equality before the law of nature, the constant sum of matter and energy, the convertibility of the most diverse phenomena into one another, transform the differences that are apparent at first sight into a general affinity, a universal equality… The value of objects, thoughts and events can never be inferred from their mere natural existence and content, and their ranking according to value diverges widely from their natural ordering.

For Simmel, it is only with the introduction of neutral, intrinsically valueless currency that allows such negotiations to be made. Money is the mediating force that makes incommensurate systems of value commensurable. Since money is free of the bias and specificity of one or another particular system of value, you simply translate your values into quantified monetary figures (or even more concretely, your valuable but particular objects into generic currency), and you have now built an exchange between the two value systems.

Since the basic characteristic of all knowable existence, the interdependence and interaction of everything, also refers to economic value and conveys this principle of life to economic material, the essential quality of money now becomes comprehensible. For the value of things, interpreted as their economic interaction, has its purest expression and embodiment in money.

Only money, in terms of its pure concept, has attained this final stage; it is nothing but the pure form of exchangeability. It embodies that element or function of things, by virtue of which they are economic. It does not comprehend their totality, but it does comprehend the totality of money.

From this wellspring comes pretty much all the phenomena Simmel discusses. What begins as a nearly awe-struck tone at the power of money to absorb disparate values and build commerce grows more despairing and melancholic as the book goes on. Unlike Smith and certainly unlike Marx, Simmel does not see the benefits and deficiencies of modern economies to be separable from each other or from modern life itself. In this he echoes Henry Adams’ model of the dynamo, though Simmel displays less of Adams’ nostalgia and innate pessimism. Rather, his philosophy is one of pure dynamism, like that of Denis Diderot and Charles Sanders Peirce before him. Everything in life is part of a great system that participates in both sides of every extreme. But there is no Hegelian Aufhebung; there is no progression to a new level where contradictions are reconciled. Rather, the tensions and oppositions define the system. A static metaphysical conception of reality, sought by much philosophy as an endpoint of certainty, is a dead-end illusion, guaranteed to produce an “Is that all there is?” reaction in all but the truest believers. Dynamism and contingency are the order of the day.

There are several core components of Simmel’s overall philosophical view to keep in mind:

  1. Dynamism and processualism
  2. Fallibility (in the pragmatic sense)
  3. Holism
  4. Coherentism
  5. Anti-teleology
  6. Heuristic reasoning

This next passage is rough going. I’ve highlighted the key terms, but please skip it if it proves too impenetrable.

The true unity of apprehension is secured only by such a dissolution of dogmatic rigidity into the living and moving process. Its ultimate principles become realized not in the form of mutual exclusion, but in the form of mutual dependence, mutual evocation and mutual complementation. Thus, for example, the development of the metaphysical world view moves between the unity and the multiplicity of the absolute reality in which all particular perceptions are based. The nature of our thinking is such that we strive for each of them as a definite conclusion without being able to settle upon either. Only when all the differences and variety of things are reconciled in a single aggregate is the intellectual and emotional striving for unity satisfied. However, as soon as this unity is attained, as in the concept of substance by Spinoza, it becomes clear that there is nothing one can do with it in understanding the world, and that a second principle at least is necessary in order to make it fruitful. Monism leads on to dualism or to pluralism, but they again create a desire for unity; and so the development of philosophy, and of individual thinking, moves from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity. The history of thought shows that it is vain to consider any one of these viewpoints as definitive.

To recap: Simmel performs the Hegelian move of showing an opposition in philosophical thought between unity and multiplicity. But where Hegel would progress forward to some new magical category of spirit or logic, Simmel doesn’t introduce any new terms. (For you Hegelians, Simmel is effectively saying that all final philosophy is akin to stoicism.1This is it, he says. Life for us is defined by oppositions that do not get resolved, and for the proof, you don’t look to logic but to our experience.

The structure of our reason in relation to the object demands equal validity for both principles, and attains it by formulating the monistic principle of seeking to bring unity out of multiplicity so far as possible—i.e. as if we ought to end with absolute monism—and by formulating the pluralistic principle of not resting content with any unity, but always searching for yet simpler elements and creative forces, i.e. as if the final result should be pluralism. The same is the case if one explores pluralism in its qualitative significance: the individual differentiation of things and destinies, their separation according to quality and value. Our innermost vital consciousness oscillates between this separateness and the solidarity among the elements of our existence. Sometimes life only seems bearable by enjoying happiness and bliss in complete separation from suffering and depression, and by keeping these rare moments free from any remembrance of less exalted and contradictory experiences. Then again it seems more admirable, and indeed the very challenge of life, to experience joy and sorrow, strength and weakness, virtue and sin as a living unity, each one being a condition of the other, each sacred and consecrating the other. We may seldom be aware of the general principle in these opposing tendencies, but they determine our attitude towards life in our endeavours, our aims and our fragmentary activities. Even when a person’s character seems to be completely oriented in one of these directions, it is constantly thwarted by the other tendency, as diversion, background and temptation. People are not divided into categories by the contrast between differentiation and unification of their life experiences. This contrast exists in every individual, although his innerpersonal form evolves in interaction with his social form, which moves between individualization and socialization. The essential point is not that these two trends constitute life, but that they are interdependent in a heuristic form. It seems as if our life employs or consists of a unified basic function which we are unable to grasp in its unity. We have to dissect it by analysis and synthesis, which constitutes the most general form of that contradistinction, and whose co- operation then restores the unity of life..

Here Simmel pulls out a Kantian backstop to Hegelian reasoning. He argues that baked into our brains are limits of our ability to understand cognition and the world itself. Our scrawny outlook on the world requires us to observe opposing trends in tension and assess reality in heuristic rather than definitive form. This was the move toward fallibilistic science that neo-Kantianism took, divorcing itself from any firmly a priori investigations. Simmel in particular wants to avoid any further abstraction than is necessary (though as seen above, quite a fair bit appears to be necessary), because abstractions only retain the ability to match up to reality when they remain connected to some general conception of everyday lived experience as it is lived by a large proportion of people, not just a few philosophers sitting in Jena. What are the abstractions with which we deal with everyday? More than anything else, they are financial. We may experience via Kantian categories, but most people give no thought to them or anything like them. But abstractions of value, as defined and regulated by money, are something we all are forced to deal with, negotiate, share, and be subjected to.

As soon as one realizes the extent to which human action in every sphere of mental activity operates with abstractions, it is not as strange as it may seem at first glance that not only the study of the economy but the economy itself is constituted by a real abstraction from the comprehensive reality of valuations. The forces, relations and qualities of things— including our own nature—objectively form a unified whole which has to be broken down by our interests into a multitude of independent series or motives to enable us to deal with it. Every science investigates phenomena that are homogeneous and clearly distinguished from the problems of other sciences, whereas reality ignores boundaries and every section of the world presents an aggregate of tasks for all the sciences. Our practice excludes unilateral series from the outer and inner complexity of things and so constructs the great systems of cultural interests. The same is true for our sentiments. When we experience religious or social sentiments, when we are melancholy or joyful, it is always abstractions from total reality that are the objects of our feeling—whether because we react only to those impressions that can be brought within the scope of some common cultural interest, or because we endow every object with a certain colouring which derives its validity from its interweaving with other colourings to form an objective unity. Thus, the following formula is one way in which the relationship of man to the world may be expressed: our practice as well as our theory continually abstracts single elements from the absolute unity and intermingling of objects, in which each object supports the other and all have equal rights, and forms these elements into relative entities and wholes. We have no relationship to the totality of existence, except in very general sentiments; we attain a definite relation to the world only by continually abstracting from phenomena, in accordance with our needs of thought and action and investing these abstractions with the relative independence of a purely inner connection which the unbroken stream of world processes denies to objective reality. The economic system is indeed based on an abstraction, on the mutuality of exchange, the balance between sacrifice and gain; and in the real process of its development it is inseparably merged with its basis and results, desire and need. But this form of existence does not differentiate it from the other spheres into which we divide the totality of phenomena for the sake of our interests.

Alongside this pragmatism comes a Quinean holism, which Simmel explicitly declares, painting himself in opposition to the nascent verificationist movement (I have no idea to what extent Simmel was aware of it). In the broadest sense, a system of thought, be it communal values or geometry, gains its truth in respect to the entire system corresponding en masse to reality.

The whole system of geometry is not valid at all in the same sense as are its single propositions. The latter can be proved by each other, whereas the whole is valid only in relation to something external, such as the nature of space, our mode of perception and the strength of our ways of thinking. Individual judgments may support each other, since the norms and facts already established substantiate others, but the totality of these norms and facts has validity only in relation to specific physio-psychological organizations, their conditions of life and the furthering of their activity.

As Quine said, “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.” But since we are finite beings, our epistemology is primarily fallible, and if our theories are not informed by this fallibility at the most fundamental level, they lack any relation to reality. Conceptual abstractions can never be said to have a guaranteed relation to reality; at best they are heuristic approximations. (As William C. Wimsatt memorably calls scientific theories, “piecewise approximations to reality.”) Metaphysically, Simmel is more or less a nominalist, believing that no universals (at least none that we can grasp) are sufficient to encapsulate the totality of reality. We participate, Kant-style, in a shared, “objective” space of conceptual abstracta as a tool for understanding the world. But this objective space is a shared social construct, not a metaphysical absolute. So in his most metaphysical passage, Simmel declares his fundamental opposition to the absolute:

Only a relativistic epistemology does not claim exemption from its own principle; it is not destroyed by the fact that its validity is only relative. For even if it is valid— historically, factually, psychologically—only in alternation and harmony with other absolute or substantial principles, its relation to its own opposite is itself only relative. Heuristics, which is only the consequence or the application of the relativistic principle to the categories of knowledge, can accept without contradiction that it is itself a heuristic principle. The question as to the grounding of this principle, which is not incorporated in the principle itself, constitutes no difficulty for relativism, because the ground is removed to infinity. Relativism strives to dissolve into a relation every absolute that presents itself, and proceeds in the same way with the absolute that offers itself as the ground for this new relation. This is a never-ending process whose heuristic eliminates the alternative: either to deny or to accept the absolute. It makes no difference how one expresses it: either that there is an absolute but it can be grasped only by an infinite process, or that there are only relations but that they can only replace the absolute in an infinite process. Relativism is able to make the radical concession that it is possible for the mind to place itself outside itself. The epistemological principles that remained content with one concept and thus excluded the continuing fruitful development of relations ended in self-contradiction: that the mind is supposed to judge itself, that it is either subject to its own definitive statements or exempt from them, and that equally each alternative destroys its validity. But relativism fully accepts the fact that for every proposition there is a higher one that determines whether this proposition is correct.

The absolute signifies a road stretching to infinity whose direction is still marked out no matter how great the distance we cover.

I read Simmel here as laying out a pragmatic ladder akin to that of Peirce, though less rigorously. Where Peirce wanted to ground truth, Simmel is trying to explain how it is that we live. So while Peirce sought to ground truth in a particular scientific method, Simmel seeks to ground value in particular human practices and limitations.

The pragmatic provisionality of our thoughts, in fact, links directly to the need for money: a non-teleological, mediating force with no intrinsic final ends. It is a coping mechanism for finitude.

Reality and value are, as it were, two different languages by which the logically related contents of the world, valid in their ideal unity, are made comprehensible to the unitary soul, or the languages in which the soul can express the pure image of these contents which lies beyond their differentiation and opposition. These two compilations made by the soul, through perceiving and through valuing, may perhaps once more be brought together in a metaphysical unity, for which there is no linguistic term unless it be in religious symbols. There is perhaps a cosmic ground where the heterogeneity and divergencies that we experience between reality and value no longer exist, where both series are revealed as one; this unity either being unaffected by the two categories, and standing beyond them in majestic indifference, or signifying a harmonious interweaving of both, which is shattered and distorted into fragments and contrasts only by our way of regarding it, as if we had an imperfect visual faculty.

These limitations are reflected not only in our cognition but in our will, and our chronic dissatisfaction with stasis. The dynamism of life, which only increases in modernity, is reflected in our need for a system that allows both for familiarity and novelty, in experience as well as in values, the shifts between them being guided by (you guessed it) money.

Life in general is determined by the proportion of these two facts: that we need variety and change of content just as we need familiarity; and this general need appears here in the specific form that the value of objects requires, on the one hand, scarcity—that is to say, differentiation and particularity—while on the other hand it needs a certain comprehensiveness, frequency and permanence in order that objects may enter the realm of values.

The economy transmits all valuations through the form of exchange, creating an intermediate realm between the desires that are the source of all human activity and the satisfaction of needs in which they culminate. The specific characteristic of the economy as a particular form of behaviour and communication consists not only in exchanging values but in the exchange of values.

Money grounds our own abstractions of value. It is a simultaneously an abstract, symbolic, and concrete entity. It has a physical instantiation, but more importantly, it is the thing by which any private and particular value can be quantified in a abstracted, universal manner, enabling us to journey from the subjective to the communal objective.

The projection of mere relations into particular objects is one of the great accomplishments of the mind; when the mind is embodied in objects, these become a vehicle for the mind and endow it with a livelier and more comprehensive activity. The ability to construct such symbolic objects attains its greatest triumph in money.  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.

Money is, bizarrely, both the most universal and the most banal thing (like Spinoza’s substance), the most useful and the most ultimately useless.2 It concretely cements values in the most provisional and unstable of ways (reflecting, as it does, human judgment).

Norms are the types and forms of relativity that develop among, and give form to, the specific phenomena of reality—whether they are termed ideas, as with Plato and Schopenhauer, logoi as with the Stoics, the a priori as with Kant or stages in the development of reason as with Hegel. These norms are not relative in the same sense as the objects subjected to them, because they themselves present the relativity of the objects. Thus it becomes comprehensible that money as abstract value expresses nothing but the relativity of things that constitute value; and, at the same time, that money, as the stable pole, contrasts with the eternal movements, fluctuations and equations of the objects.

So money is really the best term in which to consider abstractions of reality, because unlike Plato’s forms and Hegel’s stages, money indisputably exists and we all have to deal with it, despite it being the most abstract and undefined thing ever, an empty container for whatever values we choose to put in it. Yet it forms the basis without which modern society would literally be impossible. 3

At this point, you may be wondering whether money can possibly support the titanic role which Simmel has assigned it. Part of this is due to money’s sheer banality; Plato’s forms just seem a lot more profound because they’re so mysterious. Simmel’s answer to that is to invoke, finally, the sheer consequence of money, in which its concrete importance is made viscerally palpable:

Money is a specific realization of what is common to economic objects 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.

Take that, Plato.

  1. “The True and the Good, wisdom and virtue, the general terms beyond which Stoicism cannot get, are therefore in a general way no doubt uplifting, but since they cannot in fact produce any expansion of the content, they soon become tedious.” Phenomenology of Spirit §200.
  2. As Danny DeVito said in David Mamet’s Heist, “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!”
  3. Hence, then, why post-capitalist visions are so hazy and vague. Having been forced to reject the free flow of value embodied by money, such systems are forced to either put up or shut up. They have to either give the exact pre-specified allocation of those values (as with communism) or else trust to individuals that an organic system of exchange will emerge in the absence of capital (as with anarchism). Simmel would say that either approach would effectively require undoing the modern world and retreating backwards into local, parochial communities. But only the most severe Luddites are willing to explicitly embrace this prescription, and so such systems are mostly left incredibly vague, because they simply cannot recover enough of our present life in their visions. Money is not everything, but it is so much that its absence eliminates life as we know it. Its elimination would entail a regression to a more subjective, less spontaneous life, because there would cease to be any sufficiently universalized, neutral mechanism for the negotiation of value itself.

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction

  1. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction
  2. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money
  3. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance
  4. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes
  5. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 4. Individual Freedom
  6. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 5. The Money Equivalent of Personal Values
  7. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 6. The Style of Life

Sociologist Georg Simmel published his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900 in Germany. Drawing on Kant, Marx, and Weber among many, many others, the book has Simmel’s singular style that separates him from pretty much every other sociologist that has ever lived. The closest analogue I know might be C. Wright Mills in his more poetic moods, but where Mills is fiery and desperate, Simmel is far more reflective. In looking at money as a ground and metaphor for modern human social existence, Simmel often seems awestruck and overwhelmed by the sheer power and meaning of money in our society. Just as often he expresses reserved horror at the injustice and inhumanity that is lubricated by monetary commensurability.

The Philosophy of Money is a hybrid work of philosophy and sociology, perhaps a “philosophical anthropology” similar to that which Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg would later engage in. It is only loosely an economic work, because Simmel never gets to the point where he can generalize over the behavior of economic populations. Rather, he focuses on the psychological and sociological effects of money as a cultural determinant. And it’s very much the idea of money rather than capital or work. He is fascinated by the implications of the introduction of a universally commensurable measure of value that has no intrinsic value of its own. Rather than focusing on how people argue over the allocations of values, he looks at how the prior requirement, the nature of valuation itself, influences those discussions.

The main themes, as I read them, are the following:

  1. Money as a structural metaphor for human existence (almost every aspect of it)
  2. The dual nature of the word “value,” moral and monetary
  3. The physicalization, universalization, and commodification of value (through money or otherwise)
  4. The effects of valuation and commensurability on human relations

The final theme ultimately becomes most important, but Simmel spends time laying the groundwork for it by examining the nature of value and how it is assigned and fixed, before he then moves on to how value is standardized and made portable and universal by money. Simmel’s treatment of “value” is heavily influenced by Kant’s first and third critique, which isn’t too surprising given that Simmel came out of the 19th century neo-Kantian movement which wanted to reclaim Kant’s worth after Hegelianism had petered out. Value, being something not assigned by nature but by creatures, becomes a crucial cognitive category in life, despite being something that each of us has comparatively little control over. (Language is also a category of this sort, though at least in 1900 “value”‘s constructed nature was a bit more clear than that of language.)

Simmel makes clear just how philosophical it is by declaring in the introduction that money has attracted his attention because it is the purest and most ubiquitous manifestation of the perennial problem that has vexed philosophers, the relation between the universal and the particular:

Money is simply a means, a material or an example for the presentation of relations that exist between the most superficial, ‘realistic’ and fortuitous phenomena and the most idealized powers of existence, the most profound currents of individual life and history. The significance and purpose of the whole undertaking is simply to derive from the surface level of economic affairs a guideline that leads to the ultimate values and things of importance in all that is human.

In the tradition of early modern philosophers, Simmel writes with no notes, footnotes, or references, and mentions of other authors are sparing. In a dense, 500-page work, this is quite foreboding, and Simmel seems to have been one of the last to get away with it to this extent. In compensation, though, he adopts what I can only call a sonata-like stye. Unlike James Joyce in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, Simmel isn’t consciously trying to fit a musical form onto his writing. It’s just that because he is writing in a semi-casual yet resolutely abstract manner, he develops a very particular technique for keeping readers (and himself) located in the flow of the work. He repeats his major themes quite often, rephrasing them but leaving the underlying points unmistakable. (In fact, by rephrasing the points over and over, he makes it easier to grasp what is essential among those points.) So where Joyce’s chapter is one of the less successful conceits of Ulysses, because the form and content do not reach enough of a unity (similar to “Oxen of the Sun”) to give the feel of an organic whole, The Philosophy of Money feels very organic, through-composed, and linear. This, as well as Simmel’s comparatively plain German style, are helpful features, because Simmel is doing deep conceptual work rather than case studies or data analysis.

Alternatively, you can think of The Philosophy of Money as following a tree structure, points and subpoints emerging from a common root and diverging, except where most philosophers simply present their overarching root theses and then cover the tree branch by branch assuming the root theses have been fully assimilated, Simmel repeats some of the root and main branch material every time he finishes one subbranch or leaf and goes to another. This makes the book redundant at times, but also makes it far easier to absorb.

Simmel was aware that he was going against the current of both anthropological and philosophical investigations. His book is closer to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities than it is to Durkheim or even Weber, except Musil manifested his archetypes as “characters” and developed his themes through the stretched conceits of fiction. (Musil attended Simmel’s classes around this time.) Simmel just thinks and thinks and thinks, touching on specifics only as the urge strikes him. He is aware of the dangers of this approach, yet he finds his anchor in the concrete existence of money, the substance which we see and feel and count, something that is right before us and lacks the abstruse invisibility of “cognition” or “being.”

The unity of these investigations does not lie, therefore, in an assertion about a particular content of knowledge and its gradually accumulating proofs but rather in the possibility which must be demonstrated—of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning. The great advantage of art over philosophy is that it sets itself a single, narrowly defined problem every time: a person, a landscape, a mood. Every extension of one of these to the general, every addition of bold touches of feeling for the world is made to appear as an enrichment, a gift, an undeserved benefit. On the other hand, philosophy, whose problem is nothing less than the totality of being, tends to reduce the magnitude of the latter when compared with itself and offers less than it seems obliged to offer. Here, conversely, the attempt is made to regard the problem as restricted and small in order to do justice to it by extending it to the totality and the highest level of generality.

Philosophy has become too windy, he says, and no longer touches down on anything that most people can recognize. Money is something that we all know.

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