Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: philosophy (page 1 of 26)

David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2018

To be a true reader or writer today is to exist primarily in a state of longing and loneliness (sehnsucht, in the German term), because the vast majority of one’s closest associates are dead. Over the course of the 20th century the world of letters separated rather violently from the world of consequence, and so loving writing as writing requires either myopic self-delusion or an absurd appreciation for the spiritual residue of artistic impact. I don’t have the former in me, so it is the latter that drives me.

A remarkable amount of excellent archival issues came out this year, particularly in fiction and literature. The two placed in the pole position are not necessarily more deserving than many others. Rather, I chose them because they seemed to be most resonant with this year, despite being written decades ago. Both are very unorthodox Cold War retrospectives, both vaguely “documentary”-like, and yet animated by almost opposite sensibilities.

Ironically, I found Anniversaries to be a gloomier tale than Kolyma Stories, in the same way that gray is a gloomier color than black, or Faith is more enervating than Closer. Likewise, Johnson’s self-appearance in Anniversaries is more despairing than Shalamov’s varied appearances in Kolyma, because there is a certain abdication of moral authority Johnson took on in writing Anniversaries that is either disingenuous or terrifying. I think it’s the latter.

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BITWISE Q&A with David Auerbach

I’m proud to announce that today, Pantheon Books is publishing BITWISE: A LIFE IN CODE. The New York Times Book Review kindly says, ““[Auerbach] writes well about databases and servers, but what’s really distinctive about this book is his ability to dissect Joyce and Wittgenstein as easily as C++ code.” I’m grateful that the book has been so well-received.

I did a Knopf Q&A around what inspired me to write it, as well as my thoughts on technology more generally.

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Why Social Construction Is True

The term “social construction” and its cousin “cultural construction” get casually tossed around a lot these days. Sometimes it’s used negatively, as a pejorative way of referring to those damn relativistic lefties. Sometimes it’s used approvingly, as a potted rejection of someone else’s position by saying, “Oh, that’s just your truth.” Either way, there’s almost always a sloppiness that tends to equate belief in social construction with relativism–especially the dreaded moral relativism. And that’s simply not the case. What follows are cribnotes on why truth is indeed socially constructed, but why relativism does not follow from it.

The real meaning of social construction is linguistic. What it means, in a nutshell, is that we could all agree tomorrow to call the sky red instead of blue, and that would not cause any problem for us. Now, this wouldn’t change in isolation. Lots of other adjustments would have to be made in order to start calling blue things red and red things blue (or some third color, in which case lather rinse repeat). So while this would be a logistical nightmare, it is still potentially possible. Adjust language in the right way by shifting enough terms, and we can go on as we did before without anyone being the wiser. By consensus, we have now changed the truth from “The sky is blue” to “The sky is red.” That is social construction.

But, you may say, the real truth hasn’t changed at all! What real truth? “The sky is still blue!” you say. No, it’s not. The sky was blue yesterday, and today it isn’t. Truths can only be expressed in mutually intelligible terms, and if you want to be left behind still calling the sky blue, you can, but now it’s you who is wrong. Social construction is not about reality, it’s about words. We don’t choose our reality, but we do choose our words–collectively.

The tricky part comes when people don’t agree on the truth. If some people say the sky is blue and some people say the sky is red, now you have to do the work of figuring out why they disagree. Maybe they just have different words for the same color. Maybe one group of people has different cones in their eyes that actually make the sky look like a different color. All of these things can be experimentally tested, because truths have to fit together with one another. If both groups agree that the wavelength of blue/red light is 475nm, then clearly it’s the same color, and there’s just terminological confusion (unless they don’t agree on numbers either, but you get the idea). If one group says the sky is blue and 475nm, and the other group says the sky is red and 730nm, then science has got some work to do in order to decide which of them is totally wrong. Naturally, the two groups have to agree to the rules of science and agree to abide by the results and agree on what abiding by the results means…but at the end of the day, cultural construction is not some free-for-all. It’s just the contract we make in order to be able to agree on anything.

On the other hand, it also means that there’s very little meaning in being right by yourself. If you think the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm (which it is), and everyone else thinks it’s 730nm (which it isn’t), you have two options. You can try to convince people that you’re right, marshaling the evidence and arguments to do so, or you can sit quietly and wait for vindication beyond the grave when someone else figures out how wrong everyone has been. But what if they never do? I’m afraid you’re stuck. You can’t be said to have been right because no one will be around to say it. Truth is linguistic, which means that unless there later comes to be a consensus that you were right, you weren’t. That’s not relativism, that’s just how the game is played.

Contrariwise, even if the entire world believes that the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm, there’s nothing to say that at some point in the distant future we won’t be proven oh so wrong and people will look back on us and say, “What fools they were!” In exchange for the pain of truth requiring some kind of social consensus, you get the pleasure of being able to doubt anything anyone says due to the possibility, however distant, of it being overturned in the future. And so the lumbering human process of truthseeking rolls along.

I began with the most objective and “scientific” examples because things get far muddier when it comes to morality and valuation in general. If there is no scientific fact to discover, as people generally assume when it comes to ethics, does that mean that morality really is relativistic? You don’t really need to answer that question, because it comes out in the wash. Social practices will inevitably spit out moral systems, which will argue with one another and end up settling on some set of values. We don’t know for sure whether a particular moral system is correct–but how is this different from science? Because, you might say, the methodology is totally different! You don’t conduct experiments to test moral hypotheses! (Unless you’re one of those analytic philosophers, that is.) That’s true. But just because there’s a different adjudication process doesn’t mean that it’s somehow more relativistic. Rather, it means that morality is only as morally relativistic as we say it is. If everyone in the world were to agree that morality is absolute, then it might as well be, because who’s going to disagree?

Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfying answer when it comes to morality, but it gives some hint of how empty absolute relativism is. At the bottom, you have to agree on some purported absolutes just to get along in the world. Most of them won’t be moral laws, but there’s no intrinsic prohibition on them being absolutes–at least, not according to social construction. All social construction dictates, rather, is that the limits of what we term the “absolute” stop at what we collectively agree to be true, because how could we possibly get more absolute than that?

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: 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.
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