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Money and mental contents

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It can be hard to see where money fits in the world. Money seems both real and imaginary, since it has obvious causal powers, but is also, just as obviously, something humans have just made up. Recent philosophical accounts of money have declared it to be real, but for very different reasons. John Searle and Francesco Guala disagree over whether money is just whatever acts like money, or just whatever people believe to be money. In developing their accounts of institutions as a part of social reality, each uses money as a paradigm institution, but they disagree on how institutions exist. Searle argues that the institution of money belongs to an ontological level separate from the physical world, held up by the collective intentions of a group, while Guala claims that money is a part of the ordinary physical world and is just whatever performs a “money-like function” in a group, regardless of what that group believes about it. Here, we argue that any purely functional account like Guala’s will be unable to capture the distinctive phenomenon of money, since monetary transactions are defined by the attitudes transactors hold toward them. Money will be obscured or misidentified if defined functionally. As we go on to show by examining recent work by Smit et al., belief in money does not require taking on all of Searle’s ontological commitments, but money and mental contents will stand or fall together.

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  1. In tandem with his necessity argument, Guala (2010) also argues that collective intentionality is insufficient for deriving institutions – if people collectively believe something is money but it fails to function as such, collective acceptance is insufficient to create that institution. However, since Searle never claims that collective acceptance is sufficient for institutions and our mental contents constraint leaves aside questions of what is sufficient for social objects like money, we opt not to address Guala’s sufficiency argument outside this footnote.

  2. Objects can have both use value and exchange value simultaneously and agents can appreciate both kinds of value simultaneously, so there is no reason to suppose that a single transaction could not be done for the sake of both use and exchange value at the same time. For example, one might buy a painting both because it is beautiful and as an investment. It is an interesting further question whether such a transaction counts as money, barter, both, or neither. As we have seen above, Marx would not classify this transaction as a monetary one, because he says money strips off “every trace of … use value…” (Marx 1867, p. 74). For the purposes of this paper, we take no position on precisely how much a transaction must be done for the sake of exchange value to count as money, since our claim is only that a transaction cannot be a monetary one unless it is at least partially about exchange value. How much it must be about exchange value is an interesting, but separate, question. (Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for help in clarifying this point.).

  3. Though it is hard to see what larger function such a group would have and what coordination problem it would solve, we could also imagine an externally identical pattern of exchanges performed by mindless automata that have no mental contents at all. Here, it is not even clear that these exchanges can be classified as any sort of transaction at all, because the beings doing the exchanging have no “sake” for which they exchange. In Korsgaard’s terms, these beings merely “act,” performing no “actions” at all. (Thanks to an anonymous referee for help clarifying this point.).

  4. Because Guala’s account is indifferent to the sakes for which exchanges occur, it is also incapable of giving a proper account of barter, since barter transactions are those that occur for the sake of the use value of the objects involved. An account indifferent to all reasons for which agents might transact or represent those transactions to themselves will be unable to capture both money and barter.

  5. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for help in clarifying this point.

  6. This does not mean we disagree with Khalidi’s classification of money. Khalidi (2015) classifies money as a distinctive social kind, whose existence depends on at least some members of a group having attitudes toward the type ‘money,’ but which does not require that those attitudes be held toward every token of that type, in order to make them an instance of that kind. Our mental contents constraint neither includes nor excludes Khalidi’s account of money. Khalidi’s account of money requires attitudes directed toward the type ‘money,’ while our constraint requires specific attitudes in every instance of money. They are in principle compatible, and together might constitute jointly necessary conditions on money.

  7. A recent exchange between Searle (2015) and Hindriks and Guala (2015a, b) in the Journal of Institutional Economics covered a variety of issues, but also included a disagreement over the importance of what Hindriks and Guala call “the very human capacity to represent rules” (2015b, p. 517). Searle insists a rule cannot possibly be normative without the humans representing the rule to themselves as authoritative, while Hinkriks and Guala claim a rule can be normative without such explicit representation. This debate is also about propositional attitudes directed at social objects themselves, because it is essentially about whether a rule must be explicitly recognized as having its status in order to be normative (which is to say it depends on some attitudes directed toward it in order to exist) or if a rule can be normative without such explicit recognition (which is to say it does not depend on the attitudes directed toward it).

  8. We are not the first to notice that social objects can depend on propositional attitudes this way. Thomasson (2003) asserts and Khalidi (2015) agrees that social kinds like racism, inflation, recession, and poverty all depend on some propositional attitudes to exist, but not on attitudes about those kinds themselves. Thomasson and Khalidi both notice that this sort of social object is possible, but do not make any larger use of this fact.


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For their help in the preparation of this paper, thanks are due to Marc Ereshefsky, Ann Levey, and audiences at meetings of both the Western Canadian Philosophical Association, and the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Society. The authors would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers at Synthese for their constructive and useful feedback on the paper. One reviewer in particular gave our manuscript extraordinarily detailed and sympathetic attention, and we are especially grateful for all their diligence and care.

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Correspondence to David G. Dick.

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Vooys, S., Dick, D.G. Money and mental contents. Synthese 198, 3443–3458 (2021).

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