When philosophers are on the money: thinkers commemorated on currency

I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the sometimes odd choices for the historical figures that adorn the currencies we use every day. The design of our legal tender is usually taken to be one of the ways of asserting our national identity and acknowledging those who made key contributions to our nations. This is why the US has its presidents on its money and why dictatorships and monarchies put their sovereign on theirs.

The other week I was having coffee with a friend who mentioned someone telling them about their list of philosophers who’ve made their way onto their national currencies, which made me curious to see who was deemed important enough.

I started with Wikipedia’s list of people on banknotes, and just searched for the term “philosopher”, which yielded some of the usual suspects (cough Descartes cough). It also presented me with a bit of a problem – the list didn’t count some philosophers as philosophers. The German political theorist Clara Zetkin (featured on East German marks from 1975 to 1990) is listed as a “Marxist theorist”, and not a philosopher. The Chinese philosophers Yi I and Yi Hwang are listed as “Confucian scholars”. There are more examples I could cite. The Wikipedia page is rather long, so there wasn’t a very good way of classifying these.

Besides the obvious issue with classifying who was a philosopher and who wasn’t, the second issue was my ignorance of so many of the people on the list. Thankfully, Twitter (shout-out to my friend Patrick for his help with some of these!) was a huge help.

One thing that is a mystery still is why these people were chosen. Descartes seems an obvious choice for France, given that he is without a doubt the most influential of her philosophers. But why Montesquieu as opposed to Émilie du Châtelet? (That’s a naïve question, I know – the only woman that is listed as appearing on the old French franc is Marie Curie – and she wasn’t even French, and she appears with her husband, Pierre; so there’s definitely a theme here…).

Putting the politics of choosing who gets to be on money aside, I find some of these portraits to be pretty interesting aesthetically. Some people are surrounded by some items relevant to their life. A good example is Juana Ines de la Cruz, whose portrait on the Mexican 200 peso note is set next to a book, an inkwell and part of the cloister where she lived. Are these objects the subject of the portrait would have chosen? De la Cruz was a nun – would she think any of these objects are fitting her memory?

The French 100 franc note featured a portrait of Descartes, and behind him was one of the muses holding a thick book and sitting next to an hourglass. Perhaps an allusion to his famous Olympica dreams, where he was presented with the book of knowledge. Really though, it seems an odd choice, given his other achievements are so much more prominent than his whacky story about how he had a bad dream and as a result became a philosopher.

I don’t feel it’s within my power to compile a full list of philosophers on national currencies, but it is nice knowing some have made the cut. I wonder if any contemporary philosophers would make it? I reckon Martha Nussbaum might be a good candidate – her work is wide ranging but at the same time accessible. Or maybe someone more niche would fit? It’s hard to see how any criteria proposed would be sufficient.

I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments – who do you think deserves to be put on a banknote? Why?