Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

On the Symbolic Nature of Money: Aristotle, Poinsot and Peirce

Crespo Ricardo Crespo, IAE (Universidad Austral) and CONICET

Apart from minor references by Plato, Aristotle has been the first thinker that has delved into the nature and functions of money. Schumpeter (1959: 63) considers his theory of one of the ‘catallactic’ and metallist theories of money. Different histories of economic thought analyses Aristotle’s thought on money taking into account its conventional or not character, its condition of medium of exchange, unit of measure and store of value. Scott Meikle (1995) has analyzed Aristotle’s notion of money in depth. In this paper, I will approach Aristotle’s theory of money from a different perspective. I will stress the character of a sign of it, also described by Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics passage Oion d’hypallagma tes chreias to nomisma gegone kata syntheken (NE V, 5 1133a 29-30) has been translated in different ways: ‘But money has become by convention a sort of representative of demand’ (Ross); ‘money is the exchangeable representative of demand’ (Liddell & Scott 1900: 830). ‘But demand has come to be conventionally represented by money’ (Rackham). Next, I will adopt the theories of sign of two precursors of semiotics – John Poinsot and Charles S. Peirce – to analyze the symbolic character of money according to the Aristotelian conception of it. Peirce is sufficiently known as one of the pragmatist American philosophers. John Poinsot (1589-1644) is a Portuguese thinker who wrote a Tractatus de signis (Treatise on Signs). The conclusion will be that Aristotle’s passages on money shed light on the nature of it. For Aristotle money is a numerical sign or representative of the need for a thing that allows for exchanging it. It is a measure that establishes through price the exchange value of the object. It is established by convention, either spontaneous or designed. Sign theories help to systematize the meaning of money. Money is a conventional sign that is interpreted constituting the exchange value of the object, a natural sign of its needed character.


Keywords: Money Aristotle Poinsot Peirce