Thursday, August 19, 2010

Copernicus at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The entry on Copernicus has been updated at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

I want to offer one minor kvetch. The article claims: Copernicus "was responsible for the administration of various holdings, which involved heading the provisioning fund, adjudicating disputes, attending meetings, and keeping accounts and records. In response to the problem he found with the local currency, he drafted an essay on coinage (MW 176–215) in which he deplored the debasement of the currency and made recommendations for reform. His manuscripts were consulted by the leaders of both Prussia and Poland in their attempts to stabilize the currency."

This is all what's said about the matter! Now, this understates the significance of Copernicus on these matters. First Copernicus articulated what is often known as Gresham's Law well before Gresham. (See wikipedia here: More important, Copernicus articulated what is known as the quantity theory of money (often attributed to David Hume). Again, see wikipedia:

The quantity theory is a major conceptual and 'scientific' achievement. It is a milestone in economic theorizing. Now, by failing to investigate this more fully, the entry at SEP perpetuates the blindness among philosophers to a) the shared history between philosophy and economics (and political economy); b) their ongoing mutual development; c) makes Copernicus' interest in theorizing about currency (shared by Galileo, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) seem largely insignificant.

End of rant!


  1. Good. I will. But the post was meant to point to an endemic problem.

  2. I'd love to find the time to explore your laudable suggestion by juxtaposing Copernicus's voice with that of Nicole Oresme (i.e., what does his treatment of the credibility of money point up re: the credibility of astronomical theory?)

  3. Would love to hear more, anaitiologikos (interesting handle!). Early Modern accounts of paper money (and anti Aristotelian approaches to finance more generally) often compare money to alchemy (both advocates and opponents). I have long tried to resist exploring this (did not want to have to deal with Newton's alchemy in context of his time at the mint), but I am realizing that I may not be able to avoid it.

  4. How well is modern political/social philosophy in touch with more contemporary streams in political economy (public choice and the like)?

  5. Hi Eric,
    Ah, yes - alchemy. I vividly remember how I & a few Warburg Institute grad students (no exactly unfamiliar with odd topics) once held a beer-driven poll over the most difficult subject to handle in intellectual history. Our realisation that we all felt alchemy to be the one, was oddly sobering.
    Still, I suspect it could be handled better by looking more closely at "value" and the credibility of "money", where gold -as you know- has remained a fundament until the 1970s. Somewhere in there, the rise of contract-based modes of sociability also seems important. Perhaps the work of Tara Nummedal could shed some inspirational light on that one.

  6. Anonymous, some parts of political/Social philosophy are very close to recent political economy. If you are interested in that kind of thing then in philosophy Arizona and LSE are probably places to be. (Maybe with me in Ghent, too!) Rawls of TJ was also very in tune with political economy. (But I will blog about that and his turn away from social science some other time.)

  7. anaitiologikos thanks for recommending the work of Tara Nummedal. I was not familiar with it or her, but it looks very interesting!

    In the Querist, which is a neglected masterpiece, Berkeley defends paper money because it is like alchemy! That really opened my eyes.

  8. At John Wilkins's urging I contacted the author who did respond to my email. She explained her decision by claiming i) that Copernicus was not original (because she claimed that Nicole Oresme had anticipated him) and ii_ that his manuscript was only discovered in 20th century and had no influence.

    On i. I think she conflates Gresham's law (indeed anticipated by Oresme) with the quantity theory of money (I would be very surprised to learn that Oresme got there first, but one never knows). It's the quantity theory of money that is really important theoretically.

    on ii. Copernicus' manuscripts circulated in important political circles, and he presented his ideas at very public occasions. Moreover, the 17th century philosopher, Gassendi (not an insignificant figure!!!), mentions Copernicus' interest in money (with considerable detail) in his biography of Copernicus.