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?
A little while ago I wrote on this blog about Descartes’ Olympica dreams. The three dreams he had one night in 1619. The then 23 year old philosopher reported nightmares and dreams which made him decide to become a philosopher. In my previous post I remarked that Freud supposedly interpreted these dreams in a letter, but that the library holding my university’s copy of the Collected Psychological Works of Freud was being renovated, and I had no easy way to access them. Well.. when I went to get vol.21, which contains the letter in question, it wasn’t on the shelf, and it seems that it indeed has been lost or worse! Perhaps some Jungian villain decided to abscond with the tome. I don’t know.
Thankfully a friend was able to deliver the Freud’s letter to Maxime Leroy to me, and so I’m able to relay to you his interpretation of Descartes’ dreams.
Freud begins his letter by saying that usually he’d be reluctant to discuss or analyse dreams when the dreamer is unavailable to comment. This, according to him, is particularly true of historical figures. Presumably, not just because we are unable to confirm with them details that might link them to the real world, but because the real world as they knew no longer exists. With Descartes, however, Freud is happy to report the task is easier than expected. He describes the dreams like so:
Our philosopher’s dreams are what are known as ‘dreams from above’ (Träume von oben). That is to say, they are formulations of ideas which could have been created just as well in a waking state as during the state of sleep, and which have derived their content only in certain parts from mental states at a comparatively deep level. That is why these dreams offer for the most part a content which has an abstract, poetic or symbolic form.
Being “dreams from above”, Freud says, the dreams are a mystery to us, the interpreters, but to the dreamer they are easily decipherable because they are close to our waking thoughts already. And thus,
The philosopher interprets them himself and, in accordance with all the rules for the interpretation of dreams, we must accept his explanation, but it should be added that we have no path open to us which will take us any further.
I think Freud sheds a bit of light on the young Descartes. The idea of becoming a philosopher must always have been close to his thoughts. His education clearly steered him towards a life of contemplation.
Source: Freud’s letter to Maxime Leroy, reprinted in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol 21
To lay readers of Descartes’ work, the fact that he’d worked on medicine might not come as a complete surprise, unlike the significance and depth of this work. Though he’d not published any of his works devoted exclusively to the study of human bodies in his lifetime, the posthumous publication of Treatise on Man (1664) and Description of the Human Body (1664), indicate that Descartes felt he had acquired sufficient expertise in the topic to devote the time it took to write these texts. What is particularly curious about Descartes’ engagement with medicine, though, is the reputation he had developed as a doctor, even before he’d published anything.
In a somewhat recent paper titled Descartes and the Bologna Affair, Gideon Manning, reports on an invitation Descartes received to take the chair of medicine at the University of Bologna . Manning traces this invitation to either late 1632 or early 1633, which places it about 5 years before Descartes published his Discourse on the Method (1637). What makes this even more interesting is that the earliest evidence we have of Descartes’ interest in medicine is in a letter to his friend Mersenne dated 18 December 1629, when he asserts he had begun studying anatomy.
By 1632, Descartes must have becomecomfortable with the typical concerns of both practical and theoretical medicine. In a letter to Mersenne from either November or December 1632 he mentions having read William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis. He claimed that it “differs slightly” from his own view, but he had only seen it after he’d finished writing on the topic. Given that Harvey was at the greatest medical innovator of the time, Descartes’ familiarity with the text, and perhaps more importantly, his feeling that he could argue against some of Harvey’s assumptions and claiming that he had arrived at some similar conclusions, it seems clear that his studies were robust enough to equip him with the mental apparatus to argue with the most learned physicians of the time.
Perhaps it is a loss that Descartes refused this invitation. It certainly was consistent with his character. In the Discourse he remarks that he was more grateful to those who offered him leisure to think than those who offered him honourable positions. Manning notes that it’s unclear whether Descartes was referring to the “Bologna Affair” here, but nonetheless, we know Descartes’ frequently avoided his friends, and he sought solitude. Nonetheless, it remains as a curious and relatively unknown part of his biography.
 Manning, Gideon. “Descartes and the Bologna Affair.” British Journal for the History of Science 47, no. 1 (2014): 1-13.
One of the reasons for which I love the history of philosophy is the trivia that comes with it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t interesting and weird facts to know about contemporary figures in philosophy. But the facts about historical figures are just, I don’t know, weirder?
Today I want to share an interesting factoid about Descartes and three dreams that changed the course of his life. According to him, the night of November 10th to 11th, 1619 was the most significant night of his life. The three dreams he had that night supposedly provided him with the purpose and drive that he needed to usher in the modern era of philosophy.
Sadly, most of Descartes’s own notes about these dreams didn’t survive . Thankfully Adrien Billet, a 17th Century biographer of Descartes’s, has preserved an account of them in his La vie de M. Descartes , and below I’m able to give you a glimpse of what he experienced that was so vivid as to change the course of a then, twenty three year old Frenchman’s life.
According to Descartes, there were three dreams. However, I think we can argue that one was actually an auditory hallucination, and I’ll explain why shortly. Let me start with the first dream, which Billet retells as follows:
After going to sleep, [Descartes’s] imagination was struck by the appearance of some phantoms who appeared to him and who frightened him so much, that thinking he was walking through the streets, he was forced to turn over on his left side in order to get to the place he wanted to go, because he felt a great weakness on his right.
This dream in itself doesn’t seem to be particularly interesting. The details we have of it are quite vague, though they seem sufficient to say simply that it was particularly vivid.
The second dream begins after Descartes rolls over.
Immediately he had a new dream in which he believed he heard a sharp and shattering noise, which he took for a clap of thunder. The fright it gave him woke him directly, and after opening his eyes, he perceived many sparkling lights scattered about the room. The same thing had often happened to him at other times and it was not very unusual for him, when he awoke in the middle of the night, to have his eyes clear enough to catch a glimpse of the objects closest to him.
There are some good reasons to think this wasn’t so much a dream, but an auditory hallucination called Exploding Head Syndrome. According to the linked wikipedia article, it is “a benign condition in which a person hears loud imagined noises or experiences an explosive feeling when falling asleep or waking up.” Prima facie this seems to fit neatly with Descartes’s description. It is classified as a “parasomnia”, that is, a type of disorder involving, among other things, abnormal movements, behaviours, emotions or perceptions, and typically occurs while falling asleep, sleeping, between sleep stages and when waking. Interestingly, the symptoms can coincide with seeing flashes of light – another thing Descartes describes. Unfortunately the Wikipedia page doesn’t mention anything about EHS being associated with vivid or lucid dreams, or anything of that sort. Nonetheless, I think that even based on the scant evidence we have, this “second dream” was actually an instance of this phenomenon.
The third dream seems to be the most significant to me, and perhaps the turbulence caused by the loud noise our protagonist heard and interpreted as his second dream helped lend significance to this dream.
In this last dream [Descartes] found a book on his table, without knowing who had put it there. He opened it, and seeing that it was an encyclopaedia (Dictionnaire), he was delighted, hoping that it could be of great use to him. At the same instant he felt under his hand another book, equally new to him, without knowing where it had come from. He found that it was an anthology of poems by different authors called the Corpus Poetarum. He was drawn by the desire to read something in it and on opening the verse,
“Quod vitae sectabor iter?” [What path of life shall I pursue?]
At the same moment he became aware of a man he did not know, who hands him a piece of poetry, beginning with Est & Non, and who praised it to him as an excellent composition. (…) He had not finished before he saw the book reappear on the other end of the table. But he found that the encyclopaedia was no longer complete as it had appeared the first time. Meanwhile, he went on to the poems of Ausonius, in the anthology of poetry through which he was leafing, and unable to find the poem which begins Est & Non, he said to the man that he knew another by the same poet which was even more beautiful than this one, and that it began Quod vitae sectabor iter? The man asked him to show it to him, and M. Descartes set about to look for it, when he came upon several copperplate engravings (graves en taille douce) of small portraits.
Before he awoke, Descartes wondered if it was a dream or a vision, ultimately deciding it was the former, and even interpreting it to himself while asleep (!).
He decided that the encyclopedia meant nothing other than all the branches of learning brought together, and that the anthology of poems, called the Corpus Poetarum, indicated in particular and in a most precise fashion Philosophy and Wisdom joined together. Indeed, he did not believe that one should be so very astonished to see that the poets, even those who write nothing but twaddle, were full of sayings more serious, more sensible, and better expressed than those found in the writings of the philosophers (…) M.Descartes continued to interpret his dream in his sleep,judging that the poem on the uncertainty of the type of life one should choose, which begins by Quod vitae sectabor iter?, indicated the good advice of a wise person, or even Moral Theology (…)
By the poets collected in the anthology he understood the Revelation and the Inspiration by which he did not despair of seeing himself favored. By the poem Est & Non, which is the Yes and the No of Pythagoras, he understood Truth and Falsity in human understanding and profane learning. Seeing that the application of all these things succeeded in suiting him so satisfactorily, he was bold enough to conclude that the Spirit of Truth had chosen to use this dream to reveal the treasures of all the disciplines of learning to him (…)
This last dream, which contained nothing but the most pleasant and agreeable things, seemed to him to indicate the future, and it was limited to those things which should happen to him in the remainder of his life. But he took the two earlier dreams as warnings concerning his past life, which might not have been as innocent in the eyes of God as it was to men. And he believed that this was the reason for the terror and fright which accompanied these two dreams.
I quote the text at length here, because I think Descartes’ own interpretation speaks quite well of the significance of the dreams he had. What strikes me as particularly interesting is that he interpreted the dream as putting him on a search for truth and distinguishing it from falsity, which foreshadows his greatest achievement in philosophy, the Meditations.
There is a further blip in these dreams make later on. The French jurist and historian, Maxime Leroy, when writing a book on Descartes sent a summary of these dreams to Freud, asking him to analyse them. The father of psychoanalysis obliged, and his response is in vol. XXI of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have institutional access to the web version, and my university’s main library which houses the works of Freud is sadly (but also, very happily!) being refurbished, and I won’t be able to get my hands on it for another two weeks.
 What is left of them, is in French in Ouvres de Descartes ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, vol X.
 I cite here at length the translation of Billet’s text found in John Benton’s translation. Benton, J. (1980) “Descartes’ Olympica”, Philosophy and Literature, vol.4 (2), pp. 163-166. In my excerpts I attempt to avoid as much as possible Billet’s own additions and instead focus on the account of the dreams themselves.