Wittgenstein and Material Economy: the Language Game of Money — Jeremy Brunger

Every day, billions of people partake in their local material economies, as mediated by fiat money, printed and accounted for by the states they support. They labor for people they do not know, take workplace risks they would not otherwise undergo, and endanger their health for the sake of attaining said money in the markets they themselves comprise. Few of them consider money how economists do, as formalized liquidity, as a state-instituted commodity form that constitutes the most easily traded value-form that can be traded in industrial economies wherein labor and production is, almost by definition, impersonal. Rather, they consider it an end in itself, the result of their existence within civilization. For the average modern worker money is  identical to gold, in the same way  gold was identical to the mercantilists’ trade of old –– that is, not as a representation of value, but as value in itself. But for the students of material value –– the economists –– money merely harbors value and can, as accumulated interest, even secrete it. But money is not foremost an economic entity, for if it were, it would prove absolutely worthless. Money is primarily a linguistic entity, a sort of text that trades for anything and everything, even eight hours of a finite human being’s day whose days, by nature, are limited unto death. Money is worthless unless constituted by the human language which defines its communicable worth, for communicability constitutes worth. The lifeblood of industrial society is money, which is language, that is, the lingua franca of the social form. Money is not printed: money is spoken.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy has important implications for how we consider the money economy as used in the so-called First World. Specifically, his notion of the language game –– like the floating signifier, when applied to the economic sphere –– reveals that the economic sphere is really a subset of the linguistic sphere. That is: it exists by virtue of the sphere of human communicability (and incommunicability). It is now customary to consider “the economy” –– the abstracted form of material economy –– some unified totality that functions as a unitary system,whether local, national, or global. But to think of economics like that is to misunderstand the role money plays within it, the units of account that ensure motivated incentive and accurate production levels. The language game of money, like the language game of phenomenalism, refers to liquid referents, that is, inexistent referents. Money, therefore, is a play of shadows and not a system of real value-regulation and reward. Nor is it really a store of value. It is a system of infinite communicability, whose being has been mistaken by mankind, who created it. The grammar of material economy, however, is only as founded in solid truth as the grammar of a spoken language: it isn’t founded in solid truth at all. Like language, money is a circulating game of mistaken intentions and pretended communicability.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein’s theory of logical propositions reveals the significatory route that human symbols take in coming to their fruition. Like any other symbol, money fulfills its function through symbolism, which itself is subject to the laws of propositional logic Wittgenstein relays. After discussing the relationship between “the picture” of mental representation and space, in Proposition 2.174 he proposes that “the picture cannot place itself outside of its form of representation.” It is therefore stuck, not liquid, analogous to material heretofore beyond noumenal comprehension. Wittgenstein holds reality to be consistent with logic, in the Hegelian mode; therefore, reality can be logically comprehended. What distinction there is between phenomena and noumena is abolished by logical interrogation –– reality denudes itself.

In Proposition 2.221, Wittgenstein proposes that “What the picture represents is its sense.” Following that, he writes “In the agreement or disagreement of its sense with reality, its truth or falsity consists.” The picture, thus, can be deformed by human misunderstanding, by improper deduction; but the picture is not even, in itself, true, because merely representational rather than identical. In Proposition 2.225, he writes “There is no picture which is a priori true.” At this point Wittgenstein begins to dissect the forms of human symbolism, as embodied in atomic facts and their signs. Were the revelatory application of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of linguistics applied to money as it mediates material economy, and were it posited as a text rather than a proper value-form, then money becomes nothing more than a social fiction, a permanent abstraction that somehow comprises the economy as a whole despite its purely semantic status. The next time you hold a dollar in your hand, consider its textual nature, the fact that it is a symbol, an imperfect sign that has no real value beyond that of mediation, which the language you speak ought to prove sufficient in doing without the prosthetic aid of currency.

Wittgenstein continues to write in Proposition 3.04 that “An a priori true thought would be one whose possibility guaranteed its truth.” Here Wittgenstein even reverts, perhaps subconsciously, to the language of material economy, in the “guarantee” of logic (guarantee being the method by which debts are repaid). But, since money is not a priori true but a mere social convention that pretends to exist within the category of truth,  it offers no guarantee as to its worth, which pretends to be comparable to human life. It is a representation of truth, not a truth in itself, and it is a bad representation at that. In Proposition 3.05, he writes that “We could only know a priori that a thought is true if its truth was to be recognized from the thought itself (without an object of comparison).” But money is definitionally an object of comparison, a medium defined by the comparison of material value. The thought itself, say, of the worth of a material object, cannot therefore be expressed by the money symbol, for its representation is false. To finalize the role money plays analogously to the object of Wittgenstein’s criticism, he writes in Proposition 3.143 “That the propositional sign is a fact is concealed by the ordinary form of expression, written or printed… For in the printed proposition, for example, the sign of a proposition does not appear essentially different from a word.” The sign of material proposition, money, by which one human being contracts with another the value of his owned object, is predicated on fundamentally obscured premises. Money, the sign, is concealed by ordinariness, in other words, the naturalization of itself within human discourse. The sign cannot signify, however, when it is not present in the grammar of the subjects hosting it — say, a merchant purchasing beef at a certain price from the representative of a firm that sells beef — even though both subjects desire transactively.

The liquid sign, money, fails itself at cessation, how Wittgenstein wrote in the Preface to the Tractatus that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” But, morally, who could say the merchant did not deserve his beef, and the seller a better form of representation than the dollar he did not collect? Both subjects desired the transaction, and both for the goal of eventual profit. But they did not speak, or rather, they spoke through the medium of money and the venture failed. The impersonal nature of money ignores the personal aspect of the agents using it, for money is only a measure of utility, and one ignorant at that of the utility being sought –– money can only deal with objects, it cannot actually valuate them. If this example is perhaps too mercantile, then imagine the same scenario when applied to a clinic in the inner city seeking cheaper medications for their indigent clients, only to be told by a stone-faced representative of capital that the language of preserving life does not make sense, that the language of preserving signals does. There is no sense in money nor in its logical compromises: it is a prosthetic vehicle for the logic of transaction which human beings can well do without.

“The name represents the object,” Wittgenstein writes in Proposition 3.22, only to continue in Proposition 3.23: “Objects only I can name. Signs represent them. I can only speak of them. I cannot assert them. A proposition can only say how a thing is, not what it is.” Thus the spoken language of money, material economy become linguistic enterprise, proposes itself but cannot prove itself under Wittgenstein’s propositional logic. The language game of money engages in autodeification but cannot prove its godhood in material economy. People enter money when they enter time, when they cognitively process the belching of cash by firms that provide their livelihood. Only money is not a metaphysical substance: it does not deserve such a title. Money pretends at philosophy but philosophy reveals it. People do not trade in money, they trade in words, and print those words as texts that are originally false in the sphere of value. A package of breakfast bars is not the same as a few dollars. They are not identical but the farce of capitalist economy pretends that they are. It is a miracle, perhaps, that “the economy” of human existence exists at all, but it only appears that way because the economy does not indeed exist. More miraculous is that anyone can walk into a convenience store, which has been constructed by human hands, and purchase with currency the material product of his choice, likewise produced by human hands. For the material was wrought from nature by the human body, but was bought from man by the inhuman language of material economy. Capital, the library of the money sign, does not even recognize that it hoards what is essentially invaluable: every dollar is an empty speech act.  “What the signs conceal,” Wittgenstein writes in Proposition 3.262, “their application declares.”

And so all money is a declaration –– an illogical one. Wittgenstein continues in Proposition 3.328, writing that “If a sign is not necessary then it is meaningless. That is the meaning of Occam’s razor.” The sign of money is not necessary for productive transaction within the sphere of human enterprise: it is only ever mediative and therefore meaningless. Money is as meaningless as the spoken grammar of dust-mites.

Wittgenstein enters into the fourth series of his Tractatus with Proposition 4.0031, writing that “All philosophy is ‘Critique of language.’” And so, too, is material economics, despite itself, for its chief social form is money, and money is not only meaningless, but destructive to that social form.

Human beings comprise the referent of human economy — to speak tautologically — not the money that they have reified before them, as though the cross were God, and the dollar man. It is as worthless as, not a dead language which retains the value of centuries, but a language which neither lone scholar nor Rosetta Stone possesses the key to understanding, for it is self-enclosed. The grammar of money does not follow a human syntax. It is no wonder that formal economics began in moral philosophy; it is tragic that it did not begin in linguistic philosophy.


Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at jbrunger@vols.utk.edu.

Image: One Million Dollars“, © wbeem, Creative Commons.