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“The Metaphysics of Money,” by Paul Tyson

Paul Tyson has written an essay entitled “The Metaphysics of Money” that explores the realm of Medieval economics in an effort to illustrate “how different metaphysical approaches to money can be, and it makes us aware that our Modern understanding of the nature and meaning of money is not a fixed and certain reality.”

Excerpt:

If you were to ask a medieval person the question “What is money?” they would not tell you that it is simply a made up means of marketplace exchange. They would not say anything like that for a number of interesting reasons. The first of these reasons is that they would assume a “what is… ?” question is a question about something’s essential nature rather than a question about its conventional function or instrumental effect. This assumption reflects a huge difference between Modern and Medieval reality outlooks to start with. To the Medievals, everything has an essential meaning, and accurately discerning true meaning determines right use. To us Moderns, it is the other way around: everything has a use – effective manipulative power, based on a scientific knowledge of how things work, is the criteria of real world truth – and each person can make up whatever meanings and values they like. Indeed, to us, nothing has an essential meaning. To us, use defines value, but value itself has no essential meaning.

Because they were interested in essential meanings the Medievals did not believe in a notion so relativistic and contingent as ‘classical’ supply and demand determined “market value”. Instead, they believed in “true value” where the true (essential) value of anything sold in the market needed to be reasonably reflected in the price if it was to be sold fairly. Here a fair price was seen as a function of properly appreciated real value (knowing what something was really worth). Fair price was a function of the essential value of the traded thing itself and the real value of the skills, labour and pious stewardship of the people who produced and distributed that good. Here also the essential value of the buyer (such as a God-imaged, though poor serf, needing food) must determine the price of, say, bread if that price is to reflect true value. So you would not get an instrumental answer to a “what is?” question of any sort from a Medieval. Further, in relation to the question “what is money?” it would not occur to a Medieval that real wealth, and any means by which wealth is exchanged, would be an arbitrary fiction that had nothing to do with moral and spiritual truths.

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(Sculpture by Sara Cunningham-Bell)

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