Money and mental contents

Synthese 198 (4):3443-3458 (2019)
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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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