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The Philosophy of Money by Georg Simmel Istaknut

Book cover design for The Philosophy of Money Book cover design for The Philosophy of Money

German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel published his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900. It is an amalgam of history, economics, sociology, social psychology, and cultural commentary. Simmel focuses on the psychological and sociological effects of money as a cultural determinant. Discussing the meaning of money is for him a matter of discussing money as a phenomenon. He describes the experience of money and analyzes the preconditions that give money its meaning: consciousness, social relations, and values.

According to Georg Simmel: "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 are 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." Also for him, money is both a causal agent and an exemplary symbol of these newly impersonal relations.

The central theme of The Philosophy of Money 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. For Georg Simmel, money is the mediating force that makes incommensurate systems of value commensurable. Because of that, a man can simply translate his values into quantified monetary figures (or even more concretely, his valuable but particular objects into generic currency), and also he has now built an exchange between the two value systems.

In a capitalist economy, more and more areas of life could be measured in money. A money economy creates an increasingly abstract mindset. For example, the exchange becomes ever more abstract. It begins as barter, the giving of one tangible thing for another, and in an early stage of the money economy, the means of exchange themselves - gold, silver, or other precious metals - have intrinsic value. Then in an advanced stage, money consists of pieces of metal or paper, the value of which is ultimately guaranteed by the power of the state. With the development of credit, money becomes still more abstract - a bookkeeping notation.

The rise of money exchange not only increased subject-object distance but also changed the very manner in which consumers experience consumption objects. For Georg Simmel, life in a modern money economy is characterized by ever greater distances between means and ends. In pre-modern society, consuming was an idiosyncratic activity, influenced by the local nature of production and the personalities of producer and consumer. For example in primitive conditions, man eats by picking the fruit from a tree or by bartering, while in a modern capitalist economy he buys food. For that, he needs money, which he acquired by working in an occupation. To become established in an occupation requires many steps, beginning with an education, which itself involves years of planning and calculation.

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