Locke, Species, and Money

Sunday, October 21st, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | 2 Comments

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.