Tag Archives: descartes

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?

Psychoanalysing Descartes – Freud’s reading of Descartes’ Olympica

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