Locke, Species, and Money

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Dan Carey (Galway) writes…

The early modern debate over species – whether they exist in nature or merely represent a convenience imposed by language – featured an important intervention by John Locke. Locke famously attributed the designation of species to so-called nominal essences defined by observable qualities and properties of things. Natural philosophy was tasked with enhancing observation and thereby creating a better match between ideas and the words applied to them. One of the questions raised in recent criticism has been whether Locke believed in the real existence of species in nature despite his conventionalism about classifying them, and if so, how their existence might serve to constrain our nominal essences.

The widespread use of the word ‘species’ was not confined to natural history in the early modern period. Another area in which it arose was in the context of disputes over money which proliferated in the 1690s in England during the recoinage crisis. Locke also intervened in this debate. Faced with currency radically depleted of silver by clipping (on average by 50%) the choice was whether to opt for a devaluation or to ‘revalue’ it at the existing legal standard – recalling all the coin in circulation and reminting it at full weight. Locke favoured this solution and a plan largely supported by his principles prevailed in Parliament.

In Locke’s philosophy, money constituted a ‘mixed mode’ – basically a concept formed from what he called ‘voluntary combinations’ of ideas, known by definition rather than ostensive reference. In the case of mixed modes, ‘the essence of each species’ was made ‘by men alone’ (Essay, II.xxxii.12) and therefore no distinction existed between their real and nominal essences.

The scope for introducing new species – allowed by money’s status as a mixed mode – appears in several innovative proposals made during the monetary crisis of the 1690s. Three of the main advocates of a land bank to generate funds, John Asgill, John Briscoe, and Hugh Chamberlen, all referred to their schemes as creating a new species of money. Asgill made this explicit in the title of his book Several Assertions Proved, in Order to Create another Species of Money than Gold and Silver (1696). Not everyone was so cheerful at the prospect of such innovation. One of Locke’s economic supporters complained that, in the case of the Bank of England, its failure to honour the promise to exchange bank notes on demand for hard currency led to decline in the value of paper, which merited describing it as ‘perfectly a new Species of Clip’d Money’.

We can gain an insight into Locke’s attitude to species, I would argue, by attending to his position on money. Rather than endorsing changes of meaning at will (like the kind proposed by advocates of devaluation) he sought to anchor the definition of money in something outside of personal fancy or expediency. For him, the value of coin was set by the amount of silver it contained by weight – not by any stamp or arbitrary denomination given to it. Furthermore, the standard had been set at the Mint at 5s. 2d. per ounce and it should not, like other systems of measurement, be tampered with. Many arguments compelled this conclusion, but one of the most telling was that international exchange dictated that the value of money rested on ‘intrinsic’ silver quantity.

On his own analysis of mixed modes, Locke could have arrived at a different assessment. He could have seen devaluation as merely a new definition of money, agreed by common consent. What he searched for, evidently, was a secure criterion of meaning that was external and invariable – in other words something to constrain the freedom associated with mixed modes. We cannot, of course, conclude directly from this that Locke was similarly committed to the idea that nature constrains our species terminology, but there is at least a pattern worth observing in which a radical nominalism held no appeal for him. In nature, the standard might come from observable properties rather than discernable ‘real essences’ but here too he sought a more regulated system, governed by intersubjective criteria.

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2 thoughts on “Locke, Species, and Money

  1. Something like this thought has always seemed quite plausible to me–though I am by no means a Locke scholar, and tend to prefer to keep my jaunts into early modern philosophy confined to the continent. It’s been a long time since I read it, but isn’t there a fairly similar argument in George Caffentzis’ book “Clipped coins, abused words…”? I could be way off base, but it might be worth looking if you don’t know that book.

  2. Yes, indeed, George Caffentzis has written on the subject of Locke and money in Clipped Coins, Abused Words, and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money (New York: Automedia, 1989), the first of a trilogy on money covering Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. There are many valuable points in this book and much that I agree with. Where I would differ is in some aspects of his account of money as a mixed mode in Locke’s thought.

    As Caffentzis presents the issue, Locke’s philosophy of money represents an attempt to counter William Lowndes’s devaluation proposal of 1695 because Lowndes would have reduced money to the status of a mixed mode (Caffentzis 105, 114). Lowndes’s endorsement of devaluation entailed a shift in the accepted definition of money, but Locke’s privileging of silver – according to Caffentzis – gives him a way to resist Lowndes. Silver is a substance, and because it is a substance Locke can treat it as resilient against improper manipulation (114-15).

    The situation for Locke is actually a bit more tricky, I would argue. Mixed modes, as Locke makes clear, are complexes of ideas and in certain instances they include ideas of substances. Thus the mere reference to silver as a substance is insufficient to avoid the ‘reduction’ of money to a mixed mode. Nor did Lowndes intend to abandon silver as the basis of the coinage but proposed instead to adjust the Mint price to a higher rate to reflect the depletion of silver in coin. So the argument was really about whether the existing standard was sacrosanct or not. Lowndes saw devaluation as part of an historical pattern, while Locke maintained the more unusual and arguably radical view that the current standard should be inviolate. On either of these two schemes money remains a mixed mode.

    Nonetheless, I do agree that silver is an anchor for Locke, but not one that changes the status of money from being a mixed mode to being a substance. For Locke it was clear that silver at the existing valuation of bullion internationally, somewhere around the Mint’s price of 5s. 2d. per ounce, enjoyed a kind of intersubjective, international agreement that freed it from manipulation – a telling appeal to something external in order to regulate and ‘constrain’ the usage of this mixed mode.

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