Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Invention of Money

"So impressed were [C14th] scholastic thinkers by the measuring successes of money and by the multiplicity of its uses that they credited ancient philosophers with having invented it."

Joel Kaye Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century p.198 (1998)

I've been reading a lot about the Greeks of late. Not the modern ones, the ancient ones. It's all good preparation for me to read Richard Seaford's Money and the Early Greek Mind, which has been bubbling away at the top of my reading list for the best part of a year now. I just wanted to make a quick note about something I've noticed; no matter how far back you go, Money has always been thought of as the 'invention' of an earlier time.

You have to be careful about the language. The words have been translated and interpreted, and despite the best efforts of scholars we can't be certain of the exact meaning ascribed. So invention may mean something different to Aristotle than it does to us, now. Talk about 'invention' and the questions that spring to my mind are who invented it? and when? I don't think that Aristotle or anyone else refers to money as an 'invention' in this way; they don't mean someone had a Eureka moment and money was born. It's more likely that in describing Money as an 'invention' what's meant is it's some form of institutional response to a problem (of commensurably, or of judgement). So not a technology created by an individual mind, but successful response to problems experienced within a group. I think anthropologists refer to it as a 'cultural invention'.

I'm not sure all this is very helpful though. Giving a broad definition of 'invention', doesn't help us to understand Money. Really it's just a way of accounting for its existence. Yeah, we invented it. After all monkeys don't have credit cards, do they? Move on. Next question?

If you're going to say Money is an invention then you might just as well say that civilisation is an invention too. Invention ceases to have a definite meaning (or at least a meaning within a range of possibilities) and becomes 'that which has the mind as a causal factor'. And, according to some philosophies at least, that means everything, everywhere, every-time.

'Invention' is just another wizard's curtain. The place to look for meaningful answers about Money and Civilisation is in the development of 'mind' rather than anywhere else. Hence, my excitement about reading Seaford's book, and my defence of, and admiration for Freud. Any coherent explanation of Money (and civilisation) requires a theory of mind.

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