Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes

  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

To review: in the first two chapters, Simmel established money’s capacities to (a) make incommensurable systems of values commensurable, and (b) dissolve meaning through a process of universalizing abstraction. He reviews the Kantian analysis of the second chapter:

What one might term the tragedy of human concept formation lies in the fact that the higher concept, which through its breadth embraces a growing number of details, must count upon increasing loss of content. Money is the perfect practical counterpart of such a higher category, namely a form of being whose qualities are generality and lack of content; a form of being that endows these qualities with real power and whose relation to all the contrary qualities of the objects transacted and to their psychological constellations can be equally interpreted as service and as domination.

“Money in the Sequence of Purposes” concludes the first half and first part of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money, the “analytic part.”  Simmel now turns to the teleological paradox of money. This paradox, in short, is this: by privileging a universal quantity over individual qualities, money becomes its own end. This is a paradox because money’s meaning lies sheerly in its lack of any particular end: it’s not good for anything in itself. Yet because the sum of money’s potential ends are always far greater than what may be gained from any one of them, it takes on a universal potentiality greater than any actual good, and becomes more valued in itself. It is a universal tool.

Love, which according to Plato is an intermediate stage between possessing and not-possessing, is in the inner subjective life what means are in the objective external world. For man, who is always striving, never satisfied, always becoming, love is the true human condition. Means, on the other hand, and their enhanced form, the tool, symbolize the human genus. The tool illustrates or incorporates the grandeur of the human will, and at the same time its limitations. The practical necessity to introduce a series of intermediate steps between ourselves and our ends has perhaps given rise to the concept of the past, and so has endowed man with his specific sense of life, of its extent and its limits, as a watershed between past and future. Money is the purest reification of means, a concrete instrument which is absolutely identical with its abstract concept; it is a pure instrument. The tremendous importance of money for understanding the basic motives of life lies in the fact that money embodies and sublimates the practical relation of man to the objects of his will, his power and his impotence; one might say, paradoxically, that man is an indirect being.

For those of you who’ve been waiting to see Uncle Scrooge show up, you can see a bit of this paradox in Carl Barks’ inconsistent treatment of how Scrooge feels about his money: sometimes he loves it for the pleasure its physical presence brings him, other times he loves it for the history behind the acquisition of the particular coins, while other times it is a mark of his superiority of having been “tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties”; regardless, however, Scrooge never really talks about what he can do with it (nor does he ever actually do that much about it besides swim in it and worry about it).

tougher-than-the-toughies

Simmel suggests that the rich attract our interest and worship as much for their vast potential of actions (“What would do with that money?”) as for their particular lavish lifestyles:

This usurious interest upon wealth, these advantages that its possessor gains without being obliged to give anything in return, are bound up with the money form of value. For those phenomena obviously express or reflect that unlimited freedom of use which distinguishes money from all other values. This it is that creates the state of affairs in which a rich man has an influence not only by what he does but also by what he could do; a great fortune is encircled by innumerable possibilities of use, as though by an astral body, which extend far beyond the employment of the income from it on the benefits which the income brings to other people. The German language indicates this by the use of the word Vermögen, which means ‘to be able to do something’, for a great fortune.

Now, finally, Simmel brings Marx into the equation. The alienation of the worker from labor, Simmel argues, precisely parallels the divorce of money from concrete meaning and particular ends. This is not a consequence of capitalist exploitation per se, but a consequence of modern urban society itself. The result is tragic:

With increasing competition and increasing division of labour, the purposes of life become harder to attain; that is, they require an ever-increasing infrastructure of means. A larger proportion of civilized man remains forever enslaved, in every sense of the word, in the interest in technics. The conditions on which the realization of the ultimate object depends claim their attention, and they concentrate their strength on them, so that every real purpose completely disappears from consciousness. Indeed, they are often denied.

By removing Hegel from Marx, Simmel turns Marx’s vision of capitalist economy bleaker. There is no dialectical process at work here, just a dynamic, organic growth that increasingly distances individuals from a grasp of meaning, replacing particular linkages with the generic, abstract links of money. Consequently, an individual sees instead of concrete  relations, a confusing mass of inadequate potential. In one of his most poetic moments, Simmel describes the sheer strain this puts on the individual consciousness and our efforts to live simultaneously in the moment and for the future:

We are supposed to treat life as if each of its moments were a final purpose; every moment is supposed to be taken to be so important as if life existed for its sake. At the same time, we are supposed to live as if none of its moments were final, as if our sense of value did not stop with any moment and each should be a transitional point and a means to higher and higher stages. This apparently contradictory double demand upon every moment of life, to be at the same time both final and yet not final, evolves from our innermost being in which the soul determines our relation to life—and finds, oddly enough, an almost ironical fulfilment in money, the entity most external to it, since it stands above all qualities and intensities of existing forms of the mind.

The result is at once to feel inextricably a part of a unified dynamo, yet without the perspective or the agency to grasp one’s particular place in it or establish it. For contrast, the Greeks’ (i.e., Athenians) sense of finite placement and the strict division of rights based on land-ownership gave them the bearing to reify a substance-centric philosophy.

Landed property, the relatively safe possession protected by law, was the only possession that could guarantee for the Greeks the continuity and unity of their awareness for life. In this respect, the Greeks were still Orientals, in that they conceived the continuity of life only if the fleetingness of time was supplemented by a solid and constant content. It is thus the adherence to the concept of substance that characterizes the whole of Greek philosophy. This does not at all characterize the reality of Greek life, but rather its failures, its longing and its salvation. It reflects the tremendous scope of the Greek mind in that it not only sought its ideals in the extension and completion of the given, as happened with lesser-spirited people, but further reflected this scope in their attempt to complete their passionately endangered reality—always disrupted by party strife—in another realm, in the secure bounds and quiet forms of their thoughts and creations. The modern view, in total contrast, views the unity and coherence of life in the interplay of forces and the law-like sequence of moments that vary their content to the utmost. The whole diversity and motion of our life does not dispose of the feeling of unity—at least not usually, and then only in cases where we ourselves perceive deviations or deficiencies; on the contrary, life is sustained by it and brought to fullest consciousness by it. This dynamic unity was foreign to the Greeks. The same basic trait that allowed their aesthetic ideals to culminate in their forms of architecture and plastic arts and that led their view of life to be one of a limited and finite cosmos and the rejection of infinity—this trait allowed them to recognize the continuity of existence only as something substantial, as resting upon, and realized in, landed property, whereas the modern view of life rests upon money whose nature is fluctuating and which presents the identity of essence in the greatest and most changing variety of equivalents.

Well, maybe–this probably says more about Simmel than the Greeks. The point is clear, though: we are comparatively unmoored even as we are more integrated. And as we work for money rather than particular goods, our goals become more unmoored because we conceive of our goals in aggregate, in terms of a particular income or particular buying power, before we conceive of ends in particular forms, because the achievement of those forms is presented in terms of monetary cost. When we do settle on a particular end, money reminds us that that end is hardly final, because we have selected it among all the other uses to which our money could have been put. Money reveals to us that the chain of “ends” never ends.

That the means become ends is justified by the fact that, in the last analysis, ends are only means. Out of the endless series of possible volitions, self-developing actions and satisfactions, we almost arbitrarily designate one moment as the ultimate end, for which everything preceding it is only a means; whereas an objective observer or later even we ourselves have to posit for the future the genuinely effective and valid purposes without their being secured against a similar fate. At this point of extreme tension between the relativity of our endeavours and the absoluteness of the idea of a final purpose, money again becomes significant and a previous suggestion is developed further. As the expression and equivalent of the value of things, and at the same time as a pure means and an indifferent transitional stage, money symbolizes the established fact that the values for which we strive and which we experience are ultimately revealed to be means and temporary entities.

Once again: money is pure teleological form without content. By being the ultimate in mere means it embodies the most general (and most empty) of ends. What this confusing relationship entails is, more or less, the collapse of the means/ends distinction by reducing everything to means.

Money is not content with being just another final purpose of life alongside wisdom and art, personal significance and strength, beauty and love; but in so far as money does adopt this position it gains the power to reduce the other purposes to the level of means.

The abstract character of money, its remoteness from any specific enjoyment in and for itself, supports an objective delight in money, in the awareness of a value that extends far beyond all individual and personal enjoyment of its benefits. If money is no longer a purpose, in the sense in which any other tool has a purpose in terms of its useful application, but is rather a final purpose to those greedy for money, then it is furthermore not even a final purpose in the sense of an enjoyment. Instead, for the miser, money is kept outside of this personal sphere which is taboo to him. To him, money is an object of timid respect. The miser loves money as one loves a highly admired person who makes us happy simply by his existence and by our knowing him and being with him, without our relation to him as an individual taking the form of concrete enjoyment. In so far as, from the outset, the miser consciously forgoes the use of money as a means towards any specific enjoyment, he places money at an unbridgeable distance from his subjectivity, a distance that he nevertheless constantly attempts to overcome through the awareness of his ownership.

All objects that we want to possess are expected to achieve something for us once we own them. The often tragic, often humorous incommensurability between wish and fulfilment is due to the inadequate anticipation of this achievement of which I have just spoken. But money is not expected to achieve anything for the greedy person over and above its mere ownership. We know more about money than about any other object because there is nothing to be known about money and so it cannot hide anything from us.It is a thing absolutely lacking in qualities and therefore cannot, as can even the most pitiful object, conceal within itself any surprises or disappointments. Whoever really and definitely only wants money is absolutely safe from such experiences. The general human weakness to rate what is longed for differently compared with what is attained reaches its apogee in greed for money because such greed only fulfils consciousness of purpose in an illusory and untenable fashion; on the other hand, this weakness is completely removed as soon as the will is really completely satisfied by the ownership of money. If we desire to arrange human destiny according to the scheme of relationship between the wish and its object, then we must concede that, in terms of the final point in the sequence of purposes, money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours.

This passage is a fairly blatant echo of Hegel’s very famous lordship/bondage dialectic, except the bondsman is absent. Again, Simmel abandons Hegel for Kant. The problem is not one of intersubjectivity, but that of an individual consciousness, the miser, accumulating an object that is devoid of content, being satisfied with the thought that money cannot disappoint the miser’s expectations because money has no expectations to disappoint. All you can do is own it.

Revising Hegel further, Simmel then replaces the skeptic and the stoic with his own two opposed attitudes: the cynical and the blase. (Unlike Hegel, these are available to the miser as well as the missing bondsman.) The cynic devalues everything save for money in itself, while the blase individual simply becomes indifferent, paralleling the skeptic and the stoic respectively.

The nurseries of cynicism are therefore those places with huge turnovers, exemplified in stock exchange dealings, where money is available in huge quantities and changes owners easily. The more money becomes the sole centre of interest, the more one discovers that honour and conviction, talent and virtue, beauty and salvation of the soul, are exchanged against money and so the more a mocking and frivolous attitude will develop in relation to these higher values that are for sale for the same kind of value as groceries, and that also command a ‘market price’. The concept of a market price for values which, according to their nature, reject any evaluation except in terms of their own categories and ideals is the perfect objectification of what cynicism presents in the form of a subjective reflex.

Whereas the cynic is still moved to a reaction by the sphere of value, even if in the perverse sense that he considers the downward movement of values part of the attraction of life, the blasé person—although the concept of such a person is rarely fully realized—has completely lost the feeling for value differences. He experiences all things as being of an equally dull and grey hue, as not worth getting excited about, particularly where the will is concerned. The decisive moment here— and one that is denied to the blasé—is not the devaluation of things as such, but indifference to their specific qualities from which the whole liveliness of feeling and volition originates. Whoever has become possessed by the fact that the same amount of money can procure all the possibilities that life has to offer must also become blasé.

Simmel now turns to the subject of money’s quantification. The very notion of quantity implies that there can be more than one of something, and so money is treated not by individual units (which would be meaningless) but in the aggregate, and its power is purely determined through the comparison of aggregates rather than any outside measure. This sort of quantified object is totally without form:

As a purely arithmetical addition of value units, money can be characterized as absolutely formless. Formlessness and a purely quantitative character are one and the same. To the extent that things are considered only in terms of their quantity, their form is disregarded. This is most evident if they are weighed. Therefore, money as such is the most terrible destroyer of form.

If the object makes room for value elements other than form, then the number of times the object is created becomes important. This is also the basis of the deepest connection between Nietzsche’s ethical value theory and his aesthetic frame of mind. According to Nietzsche, the quality of a society is determined by the height of the values achieved in it no matter how isolated they may be; the quality of a society does not depend on the extent to which laudable qualities have spread. In the same way, the quality of an artistic period is not the result of the height and quantity of good average achievements but only of the height of the very best achievement. Thus the utilitarian, who is interested solely in the tangible results of action, is inclined towards socialism with its emphasis on the masses and on spreading desirable living conditions, whereas the idealistic moralist, to whom the more or less aesthetically expressible form of action is crucial, is usually an individualist, or at least, like Kant, someone who emphasizes the autonomy of the individual above all else. The same is true in the realm of subjective happiness. We often feel that the highest culmination of joie de vivre, which signifies for the individual his perfect self-realization in the material of existence, need not be repeated. To have experienced this once gives a value to life that would not, as a rule, be enhanced by its repetition. Such moments in which life has been brought to a point of unique self-fulfilment, and has completely subjected the resistance of matter—in the broadest sense—to our feelings and our will, spread an atmosphere that one might call a counterpart to timelessness, to species aeternitatis—a transcendence of number and of time.

Now, Simmel already made the case earlier for money’s formlessness based on its ability to assimilate and reconcile disparate value systems. Here he seems to be saying that commensurability and quantification are two sides of the same coin. The reconciliation of those value systems requires that some regularity of exchange be possible between them, and the only system for setting such rates is one that lacks any particular form–that is, numerical quantity. Contrariwise, the quantification of goods across multiple people, as a utilitarian would have it, obviously requires commensurability, which has often proven to be the utilitarian’s albatross. Simmel’s implication is that whether or not the utilitarian admits it, utilitarian philosophy effectively monetizes the good. There is no way to calculate maximum good or determine its distribution without emptying it of content.

This is all seeming very grim, but Simmel admits to some positive effects. The individual gains greater freedom to select which value systems to inhabit and exchange into. If you can determine a meaningful purpose for yourself, however arbitrarily, modernity gives you greater flexibility in pursuing it. Hence the paradox of the increase of individualism even as the individual is bound more tightly into a larger social system.

The contents of life—as they become more and more expressible in money which is absolutely continuous, rhythmical and indifferent to any distinctive form—are, at it were, split up into so many small parts; their rounded totalities are so shattered that any arbitrary synthesis and formation of them is possible. It is this process that provides the material for modern individualism and the abundance of its products. The personality clearly creates new unities of life with this basically unformed material and obviously operates with greater independence and variability compared with what was formerly done in close solidarity with material unities.

While the utilitarian or the socialist may empty things of aesthetic and moral content, such quantification nonetheless allows for more equality, since equality can now be calculated. Equality is not a notion that shows up all too often in the global history of thought, and when it does it’s usually restricted to conveniently ineffable things like souls. Money is what makes equality possible, by allowing for any particular imbalance to be compensated for. Likewise, we see the potential leveling of social inequality and elitism, since no one set of values necessarily has a lock on ultimate meaning, but all are subject to the empty arbiter of monetary value. Particular values are taken apart and reconstituted in the most general and distributed way possible, which in turn supports a democratic sentiment.

The same viewpoint can be observed in the historical sciences: language, the arts, institutions and cultural products of any kind are interpreted as the result of innumerable minimal contributions; the miracle of their origin is traced not to the quality of heroic individual personalities but to the quantity of the converging and condensed activities of a whole historical group. The small daily events of the intellectual, cultural and political life, whose sum total determines the overall picture of the historical scene, rather than the specific individual acts of the leaders, have now become the object of historical research. Where any prominence and qualitative incomparability of an individual still prevails, this is interpreted as an unusually lucky inheritance, that is as an event that includes and expresses a large quantity of accumulated energies and achievements of the human species. Indeed, even within a wholly individualistic ethic this democratic tendency is powerful and is elevated to a world view, while at the same time the inner nature of the soul is deprecated. This corresponds to the belief that the highest values are embedded in everyday existence and in each of its moments, but not in a heroic attitude or in catastrophes or outstanding deeds and experiences, which always have something arbitrary and superficial about them. We may all experience great passions and unheard-of flights of fancy, yet their final value depends on what they mean for those quiet, nameless and equable hours when alone the real and total self lives. Finally, despite all appearances to the contrary and all justified criticism, modern times as a whole are characterized throughout by a trend towards empiricism and hence display their innermost relationship to modern democracy in terms of form and sentiment. Empiricism replaces the single visionary or rational idea with the highest possible number of observations; it substitutes their qualitative character by the quantity of assembled individual cases. Psychological sensualism, which considers the most sublime and abstract forms and faculties of our reasons to be the mere accumulation and intensification of the most ordinary sensual elements, corresponds to this methodological intention.

Again: this is not just capitalism, this is modernity. The socialist or communist who promises a return to integrated meaning once exploitation and/or money is abolished is simply wrong unless they are also preaching a Luddite return to primitive society. The very thing that fuels modern society is the same thing that strips it of all particularized teleological meaning, and sets us toward seeing the world in an increasingly instrumental, quantified fashion.

Only metaphysics can construct entities completely lacking in quality, which perform the play of the world according to purely arithmetical relations. In the empirical world, however, only money is free from any quality and exclusively determined by quantity. Since we are unable to grasp pure being as pure energy in order to trace the particularity of the phenomena from the quantitative modifications of being or energy, and since we always have some kind of relationship—even though not always exactly the same one—with all specific things, their elements and origins, money is completely cut off from the corresponding relationships that concern it. Pure economic value has been embodied in a substance whose quantitative conditions bring about all kinds of peculiar formations without being able to bring into being anything other than its quantity. Thus, one of the major tendencies of life— the reduction of quality to quantity—achieves its highest and uniquely perfect representation in money.

"Money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours."

“Money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours.”

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance

  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

Having laid the philosophical groundwork for the conception of money, Simmel’s second chapter provides, loosely speaking, a genealogy of money, showing that as money is introduced into a barter economy, it gradually loses any specific character as it swells to encompass and merge distinct notions of value. Money becomes a totalizing, unifying substance, reifying the unity of a polity. Simmel develops a couple concurrent analogies in this chapter, particularly between money and love and money and politics. Working them out is tricky, particularly because Simmel seems to be invoking Kant’s first and third critique simultaneously, and I’m going to leave some gaps here in order to keep this entry at a manageable length. What I’ll present are the core schemata that Simmel sets up for conceptualizing money in terms of these other things.

The fundamental contrast is between the specific and the general. In this passage, Simmel analogizes money’s role to that of Kantian cognition (i.e., providing categorical, abstract form for concrete, sensible content), and specifically the transcendental unity of apperception. As money becomes more generic, it becomes less tangible and more conceptual:

The greater the role of money becomes in concentrating values—and this occurs not simply through the increase in its quantity, but through an extension of its function to more and more objects and the consolidation of even more diverse values in this form—the less it will need to be tied to a material substance; for the mechanical sameness and rigidity of a substance will become increasingly inadequate compared with the abundance, mutability and variety of values which are projected upon and consolidated in, the concept of money.

This process might be called the growing spiritualization of money, since it is the essence of mental activity to bring unity out of diversity. In the sensible world, things exist side by side; only in the sphere of the mind are they integrated. The elements of a concept form a unity, as do subject and predicate in a proposition; there is no equivalent in the world of directly perceived phenomena. The organism, as the bridge between matter and mind, is the first step towards such an equivalent; interaction merges its elements and it strives constantly for an unattainable perfect unity. Only in the mind, however, does interaction become real integration. The interaction of exchange brings about a mental unity of values. The spatially extended substance is only a symbol of money, because the disconnectedness of what exists as substance contradicts the nature of money as an abstract representation of interaction. Only to the extent that the material element recedes does money become real money, that is a real integration and a point of unification of interacting elements of value, which only the mind can accomplish.

Simmel stresses, however, just how alien this universality is to our own most intuitive systems of values. Just as he ended the previous chapter on money’s role in the singular calculus of human suffering, he begins by describing two incommensurable value systems, those of pleasure and pain:

The basic assertion of pessimism is that there is in life a considerable excess of suffering over happiness, that living beings, considered as a whole or on the average, experience much more pain than pleasure. It is quite impossible to make such an assertion, which presupposes that pleasure and pain can be directly balanced and set off against each other as two qualitatively equal magnitudes with opposite signs. In reality this is impossible because there is no common measure. When we suffer we cannot experience what amount of pleasure would be necessary to compensate for the suffering. How then can we explain that such comparisons are always being made; that in everyday affairs, in a coherent destiny, in the sum of an individual life, we judge that the quantity of enjoyment has fallen below or has exceeded the amount of pain? It is possible only because the experience of life has taught us, more or less strictly, how fortune and misfortune are actually distributed, how much suffering has to be accepted in order to attain a certain amount of pleasure, and how much of each is man’s usual portion. Only when we have formed some notion of this kind, no matter how unconscious and vague, is it possible to say that in a particular case a pleasure has been paid for too dearly—i.e. with too large an amount of suffering—or that in one individual life the pain exceeded the happiness. The average itself cannot be ‘disproportionate’ because it is the standard by which we determine whether the relation between feelings in an individual case is fair or not. In the same way, it is impossible to say that people on the average are tall or small, since the average provides the standard by which the individual is measured; and it is misleading to say that ‘time’ passes quickly or slowly, since the passage of time—i.e. the average experienced pace of events—is the measuring rod by which the quickness or slowness of the passage of single events is measured, while the average itself is neither quick nor slow. Thus, the pessimistic assertion that the average human life contains more suffering than enjoyment is methodologically just as impossible as the optimistic assertion of the contrary. The sensation of the total quantities of pleasure and pain (or, differently expressed, the average of them for an individual or for a period of time) is the original phenomenon, whose components cannot be compared with each other because this would require a measure independent of both and yet comprehending both equally.

…In so far as, in individual cases, the elements repeat the proportions that occur in the total quantities, then the elements have a’correct’, i.e. normal, average or typical relation, and deviations appear as a ‘preponderance’ or ‘disproportion’ of one element. In themselves, the elements in individual cases have no more a right or wrong, an equal or unequal, relation than have the totalities; they acquire such a relation only through the total quantities being established as an absolute, in terms of which the singular, the relative, is calculated. The absolute is not subject to the rules of comparison that it makes possible for the relative.

In other words, it is through a process of cognition, abstraction, and holistic conceptualization that we arrive at a way to reconcile two independent systems of value (in this case, pleasure and pain). It’s only because we have some common, societal conception of what are expected amounts of pleasure and pain that we can say that a person has a deficit of one in favor of the other. But that is really only calculated as a deviation from the two averages, not a reconciliation of the two value systems. This is a crucial point, for it is the same way that money operates–not by literally reconciling value systems, but by providing a universal, numerical unit of measure by which values of differing systems can be exchanged. Yet the establishment of these measures is purely an “objective” societal construct which floats free of any single system of values. If Platonism were true, then money could be said to embody the Form of value. But since Simmel is a nominalist, money is merely value-agnostic, and its abstraction is purely a human construct:

The value of things— ethical as well as eudaemonistic, religious as well as aesthetic—hovers, like the Platonic ideas, above the world; a realm that is governed by its own alien and intangible inner norms, but that lends relief and colour to reality. Economic value originates by derivation from these primary, directly experienced values, by weighing the objects in which values are incorporated against each other, so far as they are exchangeable. Within this area, however, economic value, no matter how it has constituted itself, has the same peculiar relation to the individual objects as has value in general. It is a world apart, in which the objects are classified and arranged according to particular norms which are not inherent in the objects. Objects that are ordered and related by their economic value form a cosmos that is entirely different from that formed by their natural and immediate reality. If money were really nothing but the expression of the values of things external to money, it would be related to things just as the idea, which Plato conceived also as a substantial, metaphysical entity, is related to empirical reality.

Thus, as value-neutral symbols (money) replace “real” goods, there is simultaneously a homogenization, a loss of specific significance, and a gain in commensurability:

One of the greatest advances made by mankind—the discovery of a new world out of the material of the old—is to establish a proportion between two quantities, not by direct comparison, but in terms of the fact that each of them relates to a third quantity and that these two relations are either equal or unequal. Two performances of entirely different quality are given; they become comparable if they display the same strength of will and self- sacrifice in relation to the required effort. Two destinies reveal very different degrees of happiness; yet they acquire a measurable relation if each is interpreted according to the extent to which its bearer deserved his fate. Two movements with quite different velocities can be related and equated if we observe that the acceleration from the initial stage is identical in each case. A kind of homogeneity emerges—and not only for our feelings —between two elements which, differing in their substance, have an equal relation to a third or fourth element. The one thereby becomes a factor for the calculability of the other. Furthermore, no matter how incomparable two people may be in their ostensible qualities, the relation of each to another person establishes an equality between them; as soon as one of them shows the same degree of love or hatred, domination or subjection, towards a third person as the other does towards a fourth person, these relations have established the separateness of personal identity. As a final example: the perfection of works of art of different kinds could not be compared and their values could not be arranged on a scale, unless each of them first had a definite relation to the particular ideal of its own kind. From the problem, the material and the style of each work of art, there evolves a norm which the actual work approaches more or less closely; and it is this relation that makes it possible to compare even the most diverse works of art. The possible conformity of such relations to a norm produces an aesthetic cosmos, a precise order, an ideal homogeneity in relation to value, from the individual works which are initially quite heterogeneous. This is not only true for the world of art. Out of the material of our isolated valuations there develops a pattern of graded significance. Disharmony is experienced only as a result of the desire for a consistent order and an inner relation of values. We owe this essential feature of our world view to our ability to balance against each other not only two things, but also the relations of these two to two others, and so unite them by judging them equal or similar. Money, as a product of this fundamental power or form of our mind, is not only its most extreme example, but is, as it were, its pure embodiment. For money can express the value relation between things realized in exchange only by equating the relation between a specific sum and some general denominator, with the relation between a corresponding commodity and the totality of commodities available for exchange. Money is not, by its nature, a valuable object whose parts happen to have the same proportion to each other or to the whole that other values have to each other. The significance of money is only to express the value relations between other objects. It succeeds in this with the aid of man’s developed intelligence, which is able to equate the relations between things even though the things themselves are not identical or similar. This ability only gradually evolves from the more primitive capacity to judge and express the identity or similarity of two objects directly, which is the source of the phenomena mentioned earlier that reflect the attempt to establish a direct relationship between money and its exchange values.

But the commensurability is grounded in nothing but the sensus communis. In keeping with Simmel’s dynamism, he paints the process of human experience as a back and forth journey between the sensible and the abstract–between form and content. This is exactly in keeping with Kant’s famous line “Thoughts [form] without content are emptyintuitions [content] without concepts are blind,” except that cognition has been naturalized into a dynamic system of life and experience. We do not synthesize them so much as oscillate between them to varying degrees. We lose substance as we move toward the universal, which is always inadequate to capture reality; we lose coherence as we move toward the specific, which can never be grasped in its immediacy. While moving away from wholly particular content is necessary for society to grow, a total embrace of a particular static symbolic form would result in a meaningless, boring existence. Consequently, any single symbolic form is inevitably taken apart, revised, and reconstructed.

On the one hand, the symbolic representation of reality increases, but at the same time, as a counter-movement, symbols are constantly analysed and reduced to their original foundation.

Only through the fact that the value of things has become detached from the objects and has acquired an independent existence in a specific substance is it possible for money to develop interests, movements and norms that, on occasion, act contrary to those of the symbolized objects. The activities of private enterprise, which are connected with money, promote the social interest of the production and consumption of goods so long as they remain merely endeavours, whereas the final attainment of their ends might undermine the aims of society. This type of situation is most frequently and decisively produced in those cases where emotional impulses strive for a final objective without being aware that all the hoped-for satisfaction is the consequence of relative advances, and may perhaps turn into its opposite when the goal is reached. I would call your attention to love, which receives its content and colouring from the desire for the closest and most permanent union, and frequently loses both when its object is attained; or to political ideals, which provide the strength and spiritual fervour in the life of whole generations but which, once they are realized, do not bring about an ideal condition, but practical materialism, torpidity and philistinism; or to the longing for a peaceful and undisturbed way of life, which is the goal of all effort and labour, yet which once accomplished often ends in idleness and inner dissatisfaction. It has indeed become a platitude to say that even happiness, though it is the object of all our endeavours, would be mere boredom if it were ever achieved as an eternal state.

So the point of money, just as with political ideals or love itself, is not to provide an ultimate goal. Rather, they make certain processes possible (commerce, politics, love) that would be beyond our conception without universalist abstraction. The telos of any of these things, however, is a mirage provided by the sheer generic emptiness of the symbol. “Love” gains meaning in the context of a particular relationship; “politics” gains meaning through a particular implementation.

In a passage that anticipates Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Simmel paints the back and forth political movement between individualism and socialism as a similar process of journeying toward a symbolic ideal, only to find that as progress is made, the original ideal loses its connection to the concrete circumstances which produced it:

The proportion in which an element and its opposite are combined and co-operate are naturally variable, sometimes in the sense that one element steadily increases while the other declines, so that the trend of the development appears to be one in which one element will finally supplant the other. But as soon as this happened and every trace of the second element disappeared, the sense and effectiveness of the first element would also be paralysed. This happens, for instance, with the opposition between individualism and socialism. There are periods in which the latter determines historical development, not only in reality, but also as an inference from ideal convictions and an expression of a developing conception of society which strives toward perfection. But if, in the party politics of such an age, it is then concluded that, since all progress depends upon the growth of the socialist elements, their triumph will produce the most advanced and ideal state of things, this overlooks the fact that the whole success of socialist measures depends upon the circumstance under which they are introduced into an individualistic economic system. The progress resulting from the relative increase of socialist measures does not justify the conclusion that their complete implementation would represent further progress. It is the same with periods of increasing individualism. The significance of individualistic measures depends upon the fact that centralized socialist institutions continue to exist; these can be progressively reduced, but their complete disappearance would lead to unanticipated results differing widely from those that individualism had previously brought about. In the field of art, the contrary tendencies towards naturalism and towards mannerism show a similar pattern.

By discussing the symbolic and the concrete in the context of politics and art, Simmel lays the ground for the case of money. Money is special. It is more difficult to grasp than “love” or “socialism” or “naturalism” because it has no conceptual ideal. It is, at best, a meta-ideal, a container for particular ideals–which, without content, are themselves empty. For you programmers, money is the base class, java.lang.Object. Money is only pure exchangability, the ability to move between any value systems. It is “the mere expression of the reciprocally measured value of things.”

The relationship between the intrinsic value of money and its purely functional and symbolic nature may develop in analogous fashion; the latter increasingly replaces the former, but a certain measure of the former has to be retained because the functional and symbolic character of money would lose its basis and significance if this trend were brought to its final conclusion. It is not only a formal analogy that is in question here, but the unity of the deeper meaning of life, which is expressed in this external similarity. In practice, we can only cope with the variety of elements and tendencies that make up life by allowing our behaviour, in every context and at every period of time, to be governed by a uniform and one-sided principle. But in this way the diversity of reality catches up with us again and again, and weaves our subjective striving, along with all those factors that oppose it, into an empirical existence which allows the ideal to enter reality. This does not imply a denial of the ideal; life is adapted to such absolute strivings as its elements, in the same way as the physical world is adapted to motions that, if left unimpeded, would have inconceivable consequences, but that, as a result of their meeting with counterforces, produce the orderly world of natural events. If the practical world is formed in such a way that our will is focused upon eternity and only attains the world of reality by being deflected and rebuffed, then here too the structure of practical life has predetermined the theoretical structure. On innumerable occasions, our concepts of things are made so unalloyed and absolute that they do not reflect experience, and only their qualification and modification by opposing concepts can give them an empirical form. However, these concepts are not for that reason thoroughly bad; it is precisely through this unique procedure of exaggeration followed by retraction in the formation of concepts and maxims, that a view of the world which is in conformity with our understanding emerges. The formula through which our mind establishes a relation with the oneness of things, which is not directly accessible, by supplementing and reproducing it, is in practice as well as in theory a primary too-much, too-high, too-pure. It gains the consistency and scope of reality and truth only by means of restraining contrasts. Thus, the pure concept of money as the mere expression of the reciprocally measured value of things, which has no intrinsic value of its own, remains completely justified, although in historical reality this concept is consistently disparaged and limited by the contrary concept of money as possessing intrinsic value. Our intellect can grasp reality only as a modification of pure concepts, which, no matter how much they diverge from reality, are legitimized by the service they render in the interpretation of reality.

Money is the transport between the sensible and the formal, and is itself something by which we make that journey. (This dual nature is confusing, which is why Simmel started with love and politics and art.) We go back and forth between thinking of money as an abstract (and meaningless) measure of absolute value, then assessing a particular object or service in (concrete) monetary terms. Money constrains reality into a monodimensional conception of value, making it graspable for us, the returns us to reality when we are brought to another particular monetary exchange for a good or service.

Playing this powerful role, money orders and regulates our sentiments, as all value systems tend to accrue and be sublimated to it, such that all the potential value wrapped up in money can have monumental and catastrophic effects on the tenor of society:

Alongside the influence of local conditions, it is the stability and reliability of social interaction or, as it were, the consistency of the economic domain that prepares the dissolution of money as a substance. This is illustrated by the fact that money brings about a continually increasing number of effects while it remains itself immobile. The notion that the economic significance of money results simply from its value and the frequency of its circulation at any given time overlooks the powerful effects that money produces through the hope and fear, the desire and anxiety that are associated with it. It radiates these economically important sentiments, as heaven and hell also radiate them, but as pure ideas. The idea of the availability or shortage of money at a given time produces effort or paralysis; and the gold reserves that lie in the bank vaults as cover for their notes demonstrate clearly that the merely psychological representation of money is fully effective. In this instance, money can truly be described as the ‘unmoved mover’.

And, rather presciently, he describes the function of material money, either coin or paper, as basically an archaic residue, not something actually needed for money to function as a symbol. The physical instantiation of money is deceptive, belying its wholly abstract, wholly generic, and wildly diverse function.

Thus, to return to the analogies used previously, while the deepest and most sublime love may be that between two souls, which excludes all carnal desire, so long as such love is unattainable, the sentiment of love will develop most fully where a spiritual relation is complemented and mediated by a close sensual bond. Paradise may fulfil the promise of eternal bliss under conditions in which the consciousness of bliss no longer requires the contrast of opposite emotions, but, as long as we remain human, positive happiness depends upon the contrast with our other experiences of pain, indifference and depression. Thus, although money with no intrinsic value would be the best means of exchange in an ideal social order, until that point is reached the most satisfactory form of money may be that which is bound to a material substance. This condition does not imply a deviation from the persistent trend towards the transformation of money into a purely symbolic representative of its essential function.

The greater the role of money becomes in concentrating values—and this occurs not simply through the increase in its quantity, but through an extension of its function to more and more objects and the consolidation of even more diverse values in this form—the less it will need to be tied to a material substance; for the mechanical sameness and rigidity of a substance will become increasingly inadequate compared with the abundance, mutability and variety of values which are projected upon and consolidated in, the concept of money.

This process might be called the growing spiritualization of money, since it is the essence of mental activity to bring unity out of diversity. In the sensible world, things exist side by side; only in the sphere of the mind are they integrated. The elements of a concept form a unity, as do subject and predicate in a proposition; there is no equivalent in the world of directly perceived phenomena. The organism, as the bridge between matter and mind, is the first step towards such an equivalent; interaction merges its elements and it strives constantly for an unattainable perfect unity. Only in the mind, however, does interaction become real integration. The interaction of exchange brings about a mental unity of values. The spatially extended substance is only a symbol of money, because the disconnectedness of what exists as substance contradicts the nature of money as an abstract representation of interaction. Only to the extent that the material element recedes does money become real money, that is a real integration and a point of unification of interacting elements of value, which only the mind can accomplish.

Instead, money becomes an empty symbolic container for value (any value), pure form.

In the development that I have outlined, money tends towards a point at which, as a pure symbol, it is completely absorbed by its exchange and measuring functions. There are many parallels in the history of thought. Our original, untutored interest in phenomena usually comprehends them as undifferentiated wholes. They confront us as a unity of form and content, and our valuations are bound to the form because it is the form of this specific content, to the content because it is the content of this specific form. In higher stages of development these elements are separated and the function as pure form is appreciated in specific ways. The diverse contents of these forms are often treated as irrelevant. Thus, for instance, we appreciate the religious mood while being indifferent to the dogmatic content. We consider it valuable that this elevation, striving and appeasement of the soul, which is the universal element in the many different historical creeds, should exist. Similarly, an exhibition of strength often elicits a respect which is denied to its consequences.

So while the movement from the particular to the formal grants structure, organization, and “meaning,” it also draws us away from particular individuating features of the particular, so that it threatens eventually to disconnect us from worldly matters (and worldly meaning) altogether. We end up with form and no content, and an attitude of total disinterest. Since money is, more or less, a conduit for exactly this movement, the implications of this disconnection from content will weigh very heavily on Simmel’s further analysis.

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.

The Authority of Obscurity: Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, Kripke

The democratization and accessibility of knowledge has always been opposed by those who wish to keep power for themselves. These opponents may wish to be seen as wise authorities, or they may be fearful of the changes that will occur if people get too curious and too smart. Their weapon in disguising or confusing real knowledge is obscurity.

Obscurity can take several forms. Just a couple:

  1. Proclamations of secret inner knowledge and access to fundamental essences known only to a few.
  2. Accusations to others of ignoring the real truth at the heart of things.
  3. Deliberate obfuscation, hiding and/or complicating what is said in order to intimidate.
  4. Appeals to instinct and conventional wisdom to justify shaky reasoning.

All of these have been mixed in with quasi-religious rhetoric in order to reify the power-base of those who wish to be exempt from the strictures of rational inquiry and science.

(For those tempted to see this as religion-bashing, this actually has very little to do with religion per se. It is about rhetoric and power and authority.)

Not that science is exempt. Such techniques are sometimes used within science (string theorists have been guilty of this recently), but they have been used outside of it with far more vigor. The sheer consistency of this is shown by three examples each a century apart: Robert Fludd, J.G. Hamann, and Martin Heidegger. There is a fourth case too, a more recent one, who doesn’t quite fit the mold but merits inclusion: Saul Kripke.

It may seem unsporting or even perverse to point out this tendency when its advocates are so clearly on the losing side–at least among the cognoscenti. But unlike Scientology or Objectivism, the quasi-mystical obscure position needs criticism because so much real intelligence has fallen under its sway, possibly because its current underdog status masks the underlying hegemonic attitude of its proponents.

Also significant is that the underlying position hasn’t really changed that much: in each, a certain high-minded rhetoric is deployed with the signifiers of authority to do an end-run around the hard toil of more rigorous thinkers.

Four examples, then, from four eras: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism, and today.

 

1. Robert Fludd (1574-1637)

Robert Fludd was an occultist and an exponent of the Hermetic traditions in the High Renaissance, just as Bacon, Galileo and Kepler were dismissing all sorts of superstition and trying to get a semi-coherent and semi-unified science off the ground. Unlike the far more brilliant Giordano Bruno, Fludd was simply not terribly bright, and in combination with colossal arrogance, he comes off as quite unpleasant.

Fludd’s half-baked thinking, which led him to propose perpetual motion machines are best seen in his famous engraving The Divine Monochord, used on the cover of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, among other places.

Robert Fludd, The Divine Monochord

The engraving overlays the notes of the scale with Ptolemy’s circular orbits of the spheres. Even if you give him the geocentric universe, to which Fludd held half a century after the death of Copernicus, Fludd messed up the notes: the F should be an F sharp. Fludd was not one to worry about such things, and while the results may have artistic value, Fludd’s attempts to link them to physical phenomena are laughable. But this he did.

For Fludd, the mere stipulation of symbolism is enough to make something true:

Further, all kinds of natural things, and those which are supernatural, are bound together by particular formal numbers. The mystery of these occult numbers is best known to those who are most versed in this science, who attribute the Monad or unity to God the artificer, the Dyad or duality to Aqueous Matter, and then the Triad to the Form or light and soul of the universe, which they call virgin.

That is, numbers have special powers given to them by their “formal” nature, that is, their nature beyond mathematics. The analogies for numbers proposed by occultists lend the numbers real power, in Fludd’s view.  Well, as Hans Blumenberg said, analogies are not transformations.

Fludd was an Oxford graduate and finally entered the College of Physicians after six failed attempts. Connections to the royal physician may have helped. Fludd became famous for his debates with Kepler, who was easily the most mystical of the scientists and astronomers.

Though Kepler had made his name by predicting a notoriously cold winter in 1595, Kepler distrusted astrology and generally held the more superstitious arts like alchemy and divination in total contempt. Nonetheless, he sought a cosmological union of mathematics, physics, and music that would explain the complete and utter perfection of God’s world. In the process, he correctly theorized that the orbits of the planets were ellipses rather than circles, a discovery of gobstopping genius contrary to pretty much what everyone everywhere had ever thought, and even more amazing given the lack of any theory of gravity to explain why the orbits were ellipses. He also discovered two other laws of planetary motion of similar import.

Fludd, in words that sound eerily contemporary (and not for the better), attacked Kepler as vulgar and scientistic, in a prolix pamphlet that needs to be heavily summarized:

In the arrogant pose of the esoteric and mystagogue Fludd lectured to Kepler, reproaching him for crass ignorance and ambition. Kepler’s science, in Fludd’s opinion, refers only to the outside of things. A distinction must be made between vulgar and formal mathematics. Only the chosen sages, skilled in formal mathematics, perceive nature truly; to the representatives of vulgar mathematics, among whom he also counts Kepler, and whom he calls bastards and stunted people, it remains invisible and hidden. These measure only the shadows instead or the reality or things. Fludd compares Kepler’s astronomy to a “mystical astronomy.” While Kepler stopped short with the outer movements of nature, he himself contemplates the inner and fundamental acts, which flow forth from nature. So it goes on, on fifty-four thickly printed folio sheets.

These samples from Fludd’s pamphlet are characteristic of the intellectual temper of that epoch. One who looks about in that departed era of writing and printing is astonished at the flood of astrological, alchemical, magical, cabbalistic, theosophic, mock mystic, and pseudoprophetic writings which held the intellects in a spell. The vaguer their content and the richer the promises they ventured in predictions, in communication of secret knowledge and abilities, the more readers they found. What was always being proclaimed under the name of Hermes Trismegistos passed for revelation, whereas imitation of the ideas of Paracelsus passed as the highest wisdom.

When Fludd, in the delusion of possessing deeper perception, held forth that he himself had the head in his hands, Kepler only the tail, then the latter replied humorously: “I hold the tail but with the hand; you clasp the head, if only it does not happen just in a dream.” The widdy disseminated writings, aiming to found and extend the order of the Rosicrucians, were naturally also known to Kepler. Yet he wanted to have nothing to do with a secret organization which feared the light. He urged the Brothers of the new order not to turn only to the ”children of the truth,” but also to go and to talk in the meetings of people, on the mountains and in public places, so that people would get to know their true doctrine.

In the face of all such pseudoscientific efforts, Kepler most strikingly characterized his manner of thought and the goal, which he also pursued in the Harmonia, when he says about his connection with Fludd: “One sees that Fludd takes his chief pleasure in incomprehensible picture puzzles of the reality, whereas I go forth from there, precisely to move into the bright light of knowledge the facts of nature which are veiled in darkness. The former is the subject of the chemist, followers of Hermes and Paracelsus, the latter, on the contrary, the task of the mathematician.” Fludd answered Kepler’s apology once more. The latter, however, did not want, as he says, to press this issue any longer and was silent. “I have moved mountains; it is astonishing how much smoke they expel.”

Max Caspar, Kepler: A Biography

Kepler only sees the outside of things, while Fludd penetrates to their innards. We’ll hear that line again.

Kepler eloquently described how Fludd “inner workings” terminally confused the causal workings of things with symbology:

I too play with symbols and have planned a little work, Geometric Cabala, which is about the Ideas of natural things in geometry; but I play in such a way that I do not forget that I am playing. For nothing is proved by symbols; things already known are merely fitted [to them]; unless by sure reasons it can be demonstrated that they are not merely symbolic but are descriptions of the ways in which the two things are connected and of the causes of these connections.

Brian Vickers draws the contrast quite vividly, emphasizing the replacement of Fludd’s visual constructions with Mersenne and Kepler’s primarily mathematical ones:

Mersenne rejects much of the conceptual structure of occult science, the whole analogical-correlative method, its symbolism, its confusion of mental and physical worlds….Kepler, by contrast, believed that the principles defining the structure of reality are picturable only in a certain sense. What is entirely lacking from the Fludd mentality is any interest in measurement or in testing an analogy against data derived from experience, and in this respect Kepler’s assumptions and methods are wholly different. The crucial issue is the relationship between pictures, words, and things. Fludd starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality. Kepler, who deals with reality in terms of geometry, rejects Fludd’s analogies as visual or rhetorical, never capable of demonstration and often arbitrary.

Brian Vickers, Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance

The particular method I’ve highlighted in bold is one that will recur as well.

Fludd was not well-liked. Even the alchemist Johannes Baptista van Helmont disparaged him as  ‘a poor physician and a still poorer alchemist, talkative, loud, thinly learned, inconsistent . . . a fluctuating Fludd.’ And when you’ve lost the alchemists….

Frances Yates, generally rather sympathetic to the Hermetic tradition and its influence on the development of science, says this about him and Kepler:

Nevertheless, Kepler had an absolutely clear perception of the basic difference between genuine mathematics, based on quantitative measurement, and the “Pythagorean” or “Hermetic” mystical approach to number. He saw with the utmost distinctness that the root of the difference between himself and Fludd lay in their differing attitude to number, his own being mathematical and quantative whilst that of Fludd was Pythagorean and Hermetic. Kepler’s masterly analyses of this difference in his replies to Fludd brought this matter out into the clear light of day for the first time and performed a great service in finally releasing genuine mathematics from the agelong accretions of numerology.

Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Accretions can still accumulate, however.

 

2. J. G. Hamann (1730-1788)

J. G. Hamann was a lesser-known philosopher of the Enlightenment who had connections with Herder and Kant. Isaiah Berlin calls Hamann the first anti-rationalist opponent of the Enlightenment, though most of his substantive criticisms had been made already by people within the Enlightenment, so his influence is debatable. Hamann heavily protested against the anti-religious, scientific trends of his age, without articulating a particularly clear alternative beyond God.

What is not debatable is Hamann’s pioneering efforts into obscure, allusive writing. Unlike Kant, who writes densely but does not seem to be covering his tracks, Hamann takes pains to avoid saying much of anything directly. Sarcasm and ridicule are more his style than sincerity or cogency.

He engages in mystical investigations reminiscent of Fludd, such as his New Apology of the letter h. It is uncannily proto-Derridean in its punning half-fatuousness, as Hamann attacks a proposed spelling reform to standardize German by removing some silent letters. The proposal is not just wrongheaded, Hamann says, but blasphemous:

The canon of writing no letter which is not pronounced is the most impossible and exaggerated postulate in the exercise. Why is the author himself unfaithful to his own propositions, not only in regard to all the other letters, but even to h? Why does he not write in instead of ihn, and inn instead of in, or ir instead of ihr, and tun instead of thun, in order to comply at least with the appearance of an analogy? What reason can indeed be envisaged for his biased exception of all the remaining letters and his unjustified severity toward a breath, which is not even an articulated sound?

If the pronunciation of letters is to be elevated to a universal judgment throne over correct spelling such as the one so-called human reason arrogates to itself (under cover of liberty) over religion, then it is easy to foresee the destiny of our maternal language. What divisions! what Babylonian confusion! what mongering of letters! All the great diversity of dialects and speech and their shibboleths would pour into the books of each province, and what dam could withstand this orthographic deluge? The h, turned out from the raw midnight of Germany, would prolifherate [sic] itself in the writings of the greater and milder nations of the Holy Roman Empire with such opulence that would not be comparable to the wise generosity of a famous translator  of sacred parchment rolls in very isolated cases. – In short, the whole social bond of literature among the German nations would be destroyed in a few years, to the great disadvantage of the true, universal, practical religion, its dissemination, and the peace promised by it – –

J. G. Hamann, “New Apology for the Letter h” (1773, tr. Kenneth Haynes)

I suppose this is good fun, but I find it rather tiring and trivial for a supposed major work, though Haynes is to be commended for assembling a reasonably compact and accessible collection. His sneering at “so-called human reason” and the elevation of his stipulated “true, universal, practical religion” grate. I’m more inclined to agree with Michael Forster’s view of the impoverishment of Hamann’s philosophy:

Besides being unsystematic, Hamann’s writings are typically short; occasional in nature; adorned with mysterious visual symbols (e.g. the figure of Pan), and enigmatic titles, subtitles, and mottos; authored with an adoption of strange identities; extremely obscure in content; lacking in developed argument; full of quotations from ancient and modern works left in their various original languages, as well as citations and allusions, many of whose significance is left unclear; prone to the use of German archaisms, especially the vocabulary and constructions of Luther’s German Bible; bombastic and dramatic; crude, sometimes to the point of obscenity; humorous and satirical, often in cruel ways; and rich in metaphors. As Goethe already observed, the cumulative effect of such features (especially for a modern reader deprived of the help that was supplied by the contemporary context) is to preclude satisfactory understanding.

Hamann did not have to write in this way; his early Biblical Reflections, a long work, is written clearly and even elegantly, and his letters throughout his life often show similar virtues. Why, then, did he choose to write in this way? Part of the explanation lies in his principled contempt for reason, and therefore for the conventional ways of writing that rely upon it. Another part of the explanation lies in a deep disaffection with his age and its ‘‘public’’—rooted in his unpopular religious position, but also exacerbated by more mundane grievances, including, for example, his lowly employment and inadequate salary—which leaves him uninterested in being understood by most of his contemporaries, and indeed keen to mystify them. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a motive that is in tension with the preceding one: a wish to cultivate a strikingly distinctive authorial individuality. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a fear that his ideas were not original or cogent (in his letters he voices a fear that he got all his main ideas from the poet Edward Young, and laments the weakness of his own intellect, e.g. in comparison with Kant’s), and in a resulting desire to mask his intellectual nakedness. It is difficult to have much sympathy with these motives.

Michael Forster, After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition

Contra Socrates, Hamann thinks self-knowledge is “a descent into hell,” merely painful preparation for the real truth of salvation. So Hamann is really opposing not just the intellectual trends of the time but the use of reason as a means to anything but faith. The obscuritanism and the attacks on reason go hand in hand with Hamann’s appeal to religion (Christianity, of course), and so it is not so surprising that today he is being used by postmodern theologians to help expand the gaps in which they wish God to exist. That is to say, postmodernism not in the service of skepticism or pluralism, but in service of ignorance and superstition.

John Betz enthusiastically endorses Hamann’s attack on Kant and the claim that Kant’s system is really just another religion like any other, Kant a “magician” and “alchemist” playing tricks on us:

Indeed, following Hamann, the very structure of Kant’s Critique could be said to mirror the mystagogy of the temple cult, proceeding by way of an ever more inward progression from the forms of intuition, which concern the “outer court” of sensibility, to the “sanctuary” of the transcendental categories of the understanding, to the sanctum sanctorum of the regulative ideas of reason itself.

In any case, as Hamann reads it, the Critique is a kind of “magical mystery” tour de force. Kant’s philosophy is “alchemical” because its transcendental method involves a similar process of purification; the only difference here is that the “dross,” which must be separated in order to attain the “philosopher’s stone” is phenomenal experience.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Teach the controversy! Kant’s philosophy, whatever its many problems, is not alchemical and not a temple cult. I repeat again: analogies are not transformations. Betz seems to think that Hamann has some sort of knock-down arguments, and that these knock-down arguments, having God in them, are somehow superior to all other criticisms against Kant and deserving of more attention.

Betz sides with Hamann in his attack on Herder’s pioneering naturalist account of the origin of language. I will not get into why Hamann’s criticisms of Herder are weak and specious (Forster’s book addresses this issue convincingly), since the rhetoric is my focus here. Note how Betz goes right along with Hamann’s invective precisely when it is most free of content:

In a masterful stroke of irony Hamann then adds that Herder’s “natural” theory must have been the product of divine inspiration, due to a divine “Genesis”; indeed, it must be even more supernatural and poetic than the oldest account of the creation of heaven and earth. For, surely, only inspiration would cause this learned author to set himself up “so confidently and so recklessly for such public, earth-shaking, hyperbolic-pleonastic, retaliatory criticism, and to misuse polemical weapons only to incur wounds and lumps at his own expense, accomplishing thereby precisely the opposite of what his readers are promised and flatteringly led to expect.”

What a lashing!

With consummate irony, Hamann then caps his parody with the following coup de grace: “With this divine organon of understanding the entire Koran of the seven [liberal] arts and the entire Talmud of the four faculties was invented, and upon this rock stands the fortress of the philosophical faith of our century, before which all the gates of oriental poetry must submit.” That is to say, how can this understanding of the origin of language, which rests upon a plain contradiction, possibly serve as a suitable foundation for philosophy, for the sciences, for philology?

What a damning appraisal!

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

I find it vaguely frightening that such rhetoric as Hamann’s should appear so convincing to a theologian that it could be cited with such cheerleading enthusiasm. Betz’s choice of the phrases “lashing” and “damning appraisal” are rather intriguing on their own, but that’s left as an exercise for the reader.

It should not, then, come as too much of a surprise that Betz then links Hamann to Heidegger and Derrida and enlists all three in his religious project, finding fault with the latter two in that they are not sufficiently religious (i.e., Christian), making Hamann the clear choice:

Thus it comes about that for Heidegger, the anti-Augustine, paradoxically “Nothing” really “Is”; and that this “Nothing” becomes the source of ethics, revelation, and poetic inspiration. Such is the odd, uncompelling, and, in view of the horrors of the twentieth century, ethically chilling result of Heidegger’s attempt to purify philosophy of theology, whereby he essentially repeats in the realm of ontology the same fundamental error Hamann identified at the heart of Kant’s epistemology, thereby bringing the history of philosophy (divorced from theology) to its explicitly nihilistic conclusion.

After the Enlightenment, the problem of reason, following Hamann and now Derrida, has come down to the problem of language. In short, it comes down to a choice between inspired and uninspired language: either language inspired by the Holy Spirit in response to the Logos, or language inspired by Nothing at all.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Here it is more difficult to argue with Betz, for he is opposing thinkers who have dispatched the only terms of argument that could help them against Hamann, and given the choice between Nothing and God, people will tend to plump for the latter. All of the relativism eventually gives way to the “true, universal, practical religion” of which Hamann, and presumably Betz, are certain.

 

3. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Much of the discussion of Heidegger can be found in the entry on Herman Philipse’s Heidegger book, where Philipse diagnosed Heidegger’s rhetoric as authoritarian and theological. (More on Heidegger’s sloppy scholarship.) Heidegger’s irritating statement “Only a god can save us” is ultimately representative of the tactics of his later work. I quote the relevant bits from the previous entry:

Sometimes Heidegger claims that he has a specific epistemic gift for discerning what Being sends us, and he compares those who do not have this gift to people who are color-blind. Unfortunately, this analogy with color-blindness does not withstand critical scrutiny. Color-blindness can be explained by specific defects in our visual apparatus, whereas I suppose that the inability to grasp what Heidegger claims to be discerning cannot be so explained. Heidegger relies on a epistemic model derived from theology, and assumes that he is the recipient of some kind of revelation…

What Heidegger counts on, then, is that we will simply believe what he says. He uses a number of authoritarian rhetorical stratagems in order to obtain this perlocutionary effect, and he is remarkably successful in securing it.

“History” in the habitual sense of the word designates both the sum of human actions, artifacts, and forms of life in the past, and the discipline that studies these actions and forms of life. Because Heidegger in section 7 of Sein und Zeit calls empirical phenomena “vulgar” phenomena, we might label empirical history “vulgar” history. To vulgar history, Heidegger opposes real or authentic history (eigentliche Geschichte), which is the sequence of fundamental stances underlying vulgar history. Real history is “necessarily hidden to the normal eye.” It is the history of the “revealedness of being” (Offenbarkeit des Seins). Heidegger’s later “historical mode of questioning” (geschichtliches Fragen) aims at making explicit fundamental stances of Dasein amidst the totality of beings. Since these stances allegedly can be studied independently of empirical history as an intellectual discipline, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history implies that the philosopher is the real historian, and that by reconstructing the sequence of metaphysical structures, he does a more fundamental job than the historian in the usual sense is able to do. Heidegger often intimates that his historical questioning is also more fundamental than historical research done by historians of philosophy, and that it may brush aside the methodological canon of historical philology and interpretation. As Joseph Margolis observes, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history “manages to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”

Heidegger belonged to the elect, to those favored by Being, who were destined to hear Being’s voice. In Beitrage zur Philosophie, the theme of the elect occurs again and again.

Herman Philipse, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being

I trust that the linkages here are evident. Like Fludd and Hamann, Heidegger appeals to some sort of revelation to which he has privileged access, one that both trumps other accounts and is not accessible to them. The presupposition of having penetrated to the inner core of things is stated as a first principle, not a conclusion.

This passage from The Question Concerning Technology is representative:

In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in subservience to the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.

Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”

But Heidegger sees, Heidegger encounters. Heidegger knows the fundamental inners of things, like Fludd. His claims would be easily dismissed if technology and science didn’t present so many genuine questions that Heidegger is forcing out of people’s minds with his mystification. Such obfuscation neuters the rational force of any critique it is used to make and replaces it with pure authority. If you have the authority that Heidegger had, you can win the argument; if you don’t, you will lose.

 

4. Saul Kripke (1940- )

It may seem unfair and even perverse to include Kripke on this list, for unlike the others he has an indisputably great contribution to formal logic. Yet it is his metaphysics and his rhetoric with which I am concerned here, and I can’t deny the overlap. In fact, it’s significant that both an “analytic” and a “continental” philosopher can fall into this list.

Kripke does not use obscurity per se; what he does do is utilize a closed system that is then pushed onto reality. In this he resembles Fludd, who in Vickers’ words “starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality.” The composite here is far more rigorous and “scientific” than anything Fludd ever managed, yet the outcome is not so different. Those who favor Kripke will certainly disagree, but the burden of proof remains with them. Central to Kripke’s approach is an appeal to ungrounded intuition that mimics the tactics of the above thinkers. Intuition becomes another obscuring tactic.

Kripke acolyte Scott Soames gives a non-technical summary of Kripke’s impact:

[Kripke’s theories] brought back the idea that things in the world have discoverable essences, which are properties not just physically required but metaphysically necessary for their existence. Some of these properties are discoverable by science. But these may not exhaust the essential properties of human beings. The impact of Kripke’s book was its message that, despite the progress philosophers have made in understanding meaning and language, philosophical knowledge is not limited to that, which means that philosophy must reconnect to the non-linguistic world.

Scott Soames in The Browser

Essential properties: the insides of things, just as Fludd claimed access to. The armchair discovery of essential properties beyond those discoverable by science is quite an achievement, one capable of generating a lot more business for philosophers itching to escape the punishing strictures of mid-century anti-essentialism. How did Kripke do it? Richard Rorty provides a good overview in the LRB, but I will briefly summarize the technical points:

Kripke postulated a formal modal logic for talking about possible worlds, creating a formalization of “necessary” and “contingent” propositions that has caught on like wildfire, wiping away the austerity of W.V.O. Quine and a number of other mid-century analytic philosophers in favor of bold new metaphysical conjectures. Some of these conjectures are indeed dangerously close to postulating the inner essence of things, as anyone who reads Kripke’s Naming and Necessity will realize. Key to this is Kripke’s idea of the “rigid designator,” a name that picks out the same thing in all possible worlds. Rigid designators include all proper names, various technical physical science terms. Somewhat famously, he says:

I thus agree with Quine, that “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is (or can be) an empirical discovery; with Marcus, that it is necessary.

So it is not possible that Hesperus could not have been Phosphorus, and this modal, metaphysical claim is based solely on the nature of the linguistic terms involved and the counterfactual possible world setup he has going. In response to those who complain about possible worlds, he says:

Those who have argued that to make sense of the notion of rigid designator, we must antecedently make sense of ‘criteria of transworld identity’ have precisely reversed the cart and the horse; it is because we can refer (rigidly) to Nixon, and stipulate that we are speaking of what might have happened to him (under certain circumstances), that ‘transworld identifications’ are unproblematic in such cases.

Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity

The shorter version of this, again, is: saying makes it so. The way in which we use language somehow makes it possible to generate claims about metaphysical necessity. Can we rigidly refer to Nixon? That seems to be the shaky ground on which cart and horse must ride.

For someone like myself who thinks that simply naming something isn’t even sufficient to be certain it exists, Kripke is far off the mark, but again, that is beside the point here. My consideration here is with the rhetorical tactics involved and how they echo past thinkers who presume a familiarity with the inner nature of reality and use a certain sort of authoritative language to proclaim it.

Other Kripkean feats include proving the necessity of “Water = H2O” and “Cicero = the organism descended from sperm s and egg e,” as well as the non-necessity of “Mental events are identical with brain events.” The passage related to this last one is worthy of quoting. Here, “C-fibers” are the part of the brain that happen to be associated with pain in humans.

What about the case of the stimulation of C-fibers? To create this phenomenon, it would seem that God need only create beings with C-fibers capable of the appropriate type of physical stimulation; whether the beings are conscious or not is irrelevant here. It would seem, though, that to make the C-fiber stimulation correspond to pain, or be felt as pain, God must do something in addition to the mere creation of the C-fiber stimulation; He must let the creatures feel the C-fiber stimulation as pain, and not as a tickle, or as warmth, or as nothing, as apparently would also have been within His powers . . . The same cannot be said for pain; if the phenomenon exists at all, no further work should be required to make it into pain.

From here it is a short hop to Kripke’s personal views:

Kripke is Jewish, and he takes this seriously. He is not a nominal Jew and he is careful keeping the Sabbath, for instance he doesn’t use public transportation on Saturdays. He thinks religion can help him in philosophy:

“I don’t have the prejudices many have today, I don’t believe in a naturalist world view. I don’t base my thinking on prejudices or a world view and do not believe in materialism.”

He claims that many people think that they have a scientific world view and believe in materialism, but that this is an ideology.

GoInside interview with Saul Kripke, 2001

Such remarks sound a bit condescending, and so I ask: does Kripke have his own prejudices? It seems that he does not. He is well above the rest of us, having evidently transcended the need for a worldview. And perhaps language as well:

“People used to talk about concepts more, and now they talk about words more,” he says, capsulizing the profession. “Sometimes I think it’s better to talk about concepts.”

Saul Kripke profile in the New York Times (1977)

Yet the reason for why analytic philosophers migrated to words was that no one could agree on what a concept was. Nor how to grasp one. The Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Concepts encompasses nearly every discipline of philosophy, while offering little that is uncontested save for the gnomic first sentence: “Concepts are the constituents of thoughts.” So the way I read Kripke’s statement is that people should talk about concepts his way.

Yet in justifying the correctness of his versions of things, Kripke often appeals to intuition. The word “intuition” appears frequently in Kripke’s writings, often as something he wishes to “capture” formally. The Preface to Naming and Necessity appeals to intuition on nearly every page in justifying rigid designators. The papers in Philosophical Troubles use intuition, if anything, more frequently, particular when speaking about truth and knowledge. Some form of the word “intuition” is used 246 times in the book’s 380 pages. For comparison, Quine uses it 9 times, and not always favorably, in the 130 pages of From a Logical Point of View, while Davidson uses it 23 times in the 285 pages of Inquiries into Truth and Intepretation. Wittgenstein uses it only four times in all of Philosophical Investigations, while Sellars makes only a single derogatory use of it in the entirety of Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.

Now perhaps Kripke’s experience is different, but I live in a world in which the vast majority of intuitions that I or anyone else has are wrong. Today’s intuitions are tomorrow’s mockeries. Either way, I don’t see how you combat Kripke if you have an opposing intuition. I doubt he expects one to do so. Appeals to intuition in philosophy are not so different from appeals to feeling, consensus, or religion: they rely on you accepting an unsubstantiated claim from a supposed expert or authority. It is hard to see intuition as much more than an authoritative cudgel designed to shut down questions and let things remain cloudy. At the end of the day, I think this is what Kripke’s metaphysics will remain: ungrounded appeals to intuition.

In some ways Kripke has embraced obscurity, publishing next to nothing in the years since Naming and Necessity and cultivating an oracular persona. He is very much a counter-Wittgenstein, another religious philosopher who published almost nothing, yet where Wittgenstein leaves us with questions, Kripke is always in a hurry to give answers. I do believe that Kripke’s metaphysical system has more value than Fludd’s pretty but false pictures of the world, but I do wonder how much more value.

I’ll let Quine have the last word on intuition’s use as a core tool of mystic authorities:

Twice I have been startled to find my use of ‘intuitive’ misconstrued as alluding to some special and mysterious avenue of knowledge. By an intuitive account I mean one in which terms are used in habitual ways, without reflecting on how they might be defined or what presuppositions they might conceal.

W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object

And this dual nature of ‘intuition’ is why intuitions are obscure, and why they form the fundament of Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, and Kripke’s work.

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