index.html   The Synthetic Unity of Valuation : Saussure, Marx, Simmel, and Kant on Money and Valuation



Michael J. Zyphur

National University of Singapore


Gazi Islam

IBMEC São Paulo


Michael S. Franklin

University of Michigan





The present article attempts to redress the paucity of research addressing the psychology of money and valuation. Drawing on Saussure, Marx, and Simmel, the current work attempts to develop an understanding of money as a signifier of value, with both money and value conforming to semiotic rules of signification. Then, value is shown to occur as a function of the ordering of commodities for a particular individual, requiring an interrelation between commodified objects in order to understand any single commodity. Further, the process of commodification is shown occur in accord with Kant’s discussion of the synthetic unity of apperception, such that the process of valuation may be understood as representing individual consciousness. Finally, we discuss our analysis of money and value.






Money means more to us than any other object of possession because it obeys us without reservation – and it means less to us because it lacks any content that might be appropriated beyond the mere form of possession. We possess it more than anything else but we have less of it than all other objects.” – Simmel, 1992, p. 325

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Without an exchange function, as an entity without a social context, money in paper or coin form could well be the most useless object the human species has yet to produce (Furnham & Argyle, 1998). However, as a social construction, money is sui generis in its meaning and symbolic importance, taking an integral role in ancient and modern societies (Dalton, 1971; Giddens, 1991; Keynes, 1982). As example, money has been discussed as indicating the value of both self and other-worth (Luft, 1957), the meaning of time and effort (Marx, 1967), and the multiplicity of objects acquirable in a capitalist society (Lea, Tarpy, & Webley, 1987).

            Defined by Keynes (1982), money is an article used as a “habitual medium of exchange” (p. 253). Keynes goes on to say that anything used in this manner is, itself, “actual money” (p.253). With this definition, and similar to Marx who states that money suffices to express value only in a “socially valid manner” (Marx, 1967, p. 103), Keynes makes clear that at least two parties must be present in order for a monetary system to develop. As with any interpersonally constructed system, without each individual within that system having a shared understanding of how to represent and enact that system, the system will break down (Saussure, 1959; Shannon & Weaver, 1949; Weick & Roberts, 1993). Thus, a “habitual medium of exchange” contains a psychological component, allowing “the question of mental causes… which can never be free from individual coloring” (Simmel, 1990, p. 54), and requires examining the individual-level cognitive structure allowing one to enact a system where money has an exchange function. In other words, money, its meaning, and the individual-level processes required to allow a habitualized system of exchange to develop necessarily belong within the domain of psychological analysis. Further indicating money’s place within psychology is the fact that any individual could, at any time, deny the existence or choose not to function within a shared and habitualized system of exchange (Chomsky, 1988).

However, and perhaps because of the habitualized nature of monetary exchange, many psychologists have taken this medium of exchange for granted, leaving it relatively unmentioned in much psychological literature (Furnham & Argyle, 1998). Conceivably further curtailing the study of money within psychology is the fact that this exchange system largely operates above the individual level of analysis, as a shared social system of value and exchange (Deflem, 2003), possibly leading psychologists to the erroneous conclusion that the study of money is at a level of analysis above that of the individual psyche.

As Simmel notes in regard to the study of money (1992, p. 57), “Here, then, it is a question, on the one hand, of connections that are basically open to exact and detailed investigtion but that, given the present state of knowledge, are not studied.” While sociologists/philosophers (e.g., Durkheim, 1951; Simmel, 1990) and economists (e.g., Klein, 1983), have examined money and monetary systems, the interrelationships of social and economic exchange factors (e.g., Marx, 1967; Weber, 1954, 1992), the construction and destruction of exchange systems (e.g., Durkheim, 1951), and a host of other monetarily related topics (cf., Simmel, 1990), the study of the psychology of money is still in its infancy (Furnham & Argyle, 1998). What little work exists on what may be considered the psychology of money appears to have taken much of the psychological meaning of money for granted (e.g., Lea et al., 1987; Mitchell & Mickel, 1999), and has left a vacuous lacuna for the theoretical advancement of a psychology of money.

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An indicator of this lack of theoretical development comes by way of the fact that almost all literature on the psychology of money has failed to explicitly disentangle “money-as-an-object,” and that which money represents, namely a process of value/valuation (e.g., Furnham & Argyle, 1998). While many authors make mention of the notion that money has both objective and subjective qualities (e.g., Mitchell & Mickel, 1999), these authors do not usually address the meaningfulness of the dual identity with which money is imbued. While the study of money’s objective form, attitudes towards that form, and perceptual processes related to the interpretation of that form are widespread (e.g., Bailey & Gustafson, 1991; Furnham, 1984; Hitchcock, Munroe, & Munroe, 1976), research specifically disentangling, either empirically or theoretically, money’s subjective and objective qualities has yet to appear. Further, while psychological literature on money has focused on individuals’ differential valuations of money (e.g., Forzano & Logue, 1994) across situations and time (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1979; Kirby et al., 2002), the structure of these valuations (e.g., Tang, 1992), and have used money to illustrate human irrationality (e.g., Bazerman, Gillespie, & Moore, 1999), a psychological theory of money has been left unexplored.

In order to redress and fill the void of theory on the psychological underpinnings of money, the current work will draw on past literature dealing with money. Through this literature, a psychological theory of money will be proposed. This theory will attempt to clearly delineate money’s subjective and objective components, showing money as a bridge between the subject and the object. This theory will indicate how money is tied to individual subjectivity and how money acts as an objective medium for an individual’s subjectivity, requiring money have objective and subjective properties. Also within this theoretical structure will be an explanation of the mechanism through which money may act toward the objectification of subjectivity. Finally, the future of a psychology of money will be explored, encompassing both theoretical and empirical directions of research. Throughout this work we emphasize that “Not a single line of these investigations is meant to be a statement about economics” (Simmel, 1992, p. 54), rather the current work is a psychological analysis of money and value.



A Theory of Money and Value


Money’s Significance

As a mechanism through which money may be understood, we draw on the structuralist work of Saussure. In an exposition of the process and meaning of reference (i.e., semiotics), Saussure delineates between “signifiers”, or surface phenomena which act as symbols of reference, and the “signified,” or that which is referenced (1959, p. 67). In the combination of a signifier and a signified, Saussure defines the term “sign,” which is a single signified/signifier relationship. In his system of signification, Saussure shows that the relationship between a signifier and a signified is arbitrary. As an example, in English the word “dog” may signify the concept dog, just as in Spanish the word “perro” may do the same. With this arbitrariness comes the fact that any signifier may relate to any single or multiple signifieds. Saussure further indicates that in order to function as a system, any process of signification must conform to various rules. With spoken language these rules may be expressed as grammar, such that only through a relation of words (i.e., signifiers) which obeys the rules of grammar may a logical statement be understood. With these two requirements of rules and arbitrary reference for any system of signification, the groundwork for a psychology of money is laid.

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As a medium of exchange, money acts as a signifier of value, with value being defined as a state where “The content of volition and feeling assumes the form of the object” (Simmel, 1992, p. 76). When focusing on this value “we leave out of consideration its purely symbolical representation by tokens,” or money (Marx,1967, p. 202). However, when focusing on the system of money’s exchange, in line with Saussure’s propositions about signification, money obeys rules. The rules which allow the system of money to function are inherently mathematical. As stated by Marx, one of money’s functions is as a “standard of price,” (Marx, 1967, p. 98). This standard, the system of signification which money allows, is internally consistent, functioning in a manner which allows monetary values to be compared and integrated in a variety of ways (e.g., addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc.), and operates as a continuous scale. Perhaps because of this scale, money’s place has been secured within the psychological literature, with many researchers utilizing money for its value as a scale as both independent and dependent variables (Gerhart & Milkovich, 1992) and possibly confounding this use with money’s second function, that of direct value signification.

As a signifier, “The first chief function of money is to supply commodities with the material for the expression of their values, or to represent their values as magnitudes of the same denomination… It thus it serves as a universal measure of value.” (Marx, 1967, p. 94, original emphasis). As such, the most important function of money is to signify the value of commodities, with commodities being loosely defined here as either objects or concepts. This point cannot be overemphasized: money does not directly represent commodities; rather, money represents value, of which commodities have varying degrees. This may be called money’s value-function (Marx, 1967).

Money’s role of a signifier of value is made apparent when realizing that “money itself has no price. In order to put it on an equal footing with all other commodities in this respect, we should be obliged to equate it to itself as its own equivalent” (p. 95), and that “value exists only in articles of utility” (Marx, 1967, p.202). By this, Marx means that when referencing only itself, money loses its form of value. As an example, with only a system of dollars, without referencing the value of any commodities, money loses its value-function and becomes worthless. This is the case because money represents the value of commodities and is not valuable without a referent (Simmel, 1992).

By virtue of its value-function, money acts to represent the value of commodities, without reference to a specific commodity (Simmel, 1992). Instead, money may represent any commodity without respect to the value given to that commodity, for by virtue of the fact that money represents its value, whether that value is large or small is made mute. In other words, aside from providing a common and consistent metric, the point of money is value signification, and the specific commodity to which value is applied is entirely arbitrary (Marx, 1967).

The value-function of money indicates the degree to which money, as a signifier, conforms to the second rule of Sassure’s signification (1959), that being the arbitrariness of the relationship between the signifier and the signified. Money, as a signifier, takes many arbitrary forms (e.g., dollar, peso, etc.), yet all money serves to represent value. Further allowing the relationship between money and value to be arbitrary is the possibility of a changing relationship between money and value, such that when economic prosperity changes, so to does the relationship between money and value (e.g., the devaluation of the dollar against the euro).

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The Value-Function of Money

            As money is not directly a referent of commodities, but rather references any and all commodities by referencing value, an important question to answer when developing a theory of money is: what is “value?” In answer, Saussure draws a sharp contrast between the process of signification and valuation (1959). In signification, the relationship between a signifier and a signified (i.e., sign) is indicated, while in valuation Saussure defines the interrelations of signifieds. In other words, the process of valuation necessarily has to do with the orderings of signifieds.

            In the context of money, this ordering means that to determine a commodity’s monetary value, you must know the manner in which the commodity relates to other commodities. In other words, values are given to commodities based on their relation to other commodities (see an empirical example in Betsch, Plessner, Schwieren, & Gütig, 2001); if a commodity is highly valued, it is so because it has more value than another commodity, and vice versa. In monetary terms this is easily understood as an item having a greater price than another item. Thus, while commodity valuations have been discussed in terms of supply and demand curves (e.g., Klein, 1983), this viewpoint is necessarily shortsighted, as it leaves out of consideration the starting and ending values of this curve, both of which are necessarily relative to the value of other commodities (Simmel, 1992).

            To use Saussure’s (1959) two requirements for a system of signification, the above discussion of value is analogous to the rules of monetary valuations (i.e., mathematical operations discussed above). This is the case because value is signified by money, and valuations occur within a system of interrelations among commodities, a system which determines their relative values. Thus, the ordering of commodities serves as a rule to allow the expression of their own worth. Without an interrelation among commodities, the system of commodity valuations would break down (Simmel, 1992).

In order to form a structure which allows the expression of values, commodities must be understood in relation to each other. In Saussurian terms (1959), the manner of this interrelating may be conceptualized as a type of grammar of commodification. This interrelating of commodities, as expressed through money and discussed above, takes the form of a continuous scale. Thus, money may be conceptualized as acting in accord with mathematical rules not because it forces upon commodities a mathematical system of interrelating, but because we interrelate commodities in accord with a mathematical system, which our use of money reflects (Simmel, 1992).

While this explanation of valuation indicates the manner in which commodity-values are referenced, maintained, and internally consistent, it does not indicate the process by which valuation occurs. At levels greater than that of the individual, commodities have been hypothesized as being imbued with value based on a number of factors (e.g., supply and demand, labor, etc.; Klein, 1983; Marx, 1967). However, and analogous to the other requisite for a process of signification discussed by Saussure (1959), it is important to remember that the interrelation of commodities is relatively arbitrary (although see work by Maslow, 1970, and others discussing ‘universal’ hierarchies of commodity interrelations). While a given group may develop a particular interrelation of commodities, this simply reflects the group’s particular ordering of commodities (i.e., the values they place on their commodities; Geertz, 1973), and the arbitrariness of these orderings allows their own order to reflect culturally-specific object valuations, and does not speak to the meaning of the process of valuation.

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In summary, the above discussion adopts a signified-signifier relationship to explain the relationship between money and value. Through its coherence to the two aspects of signs discussed by Saussure (1959), and similar to Marx’s (1967) and Simmel’s (1992) discussion of money, money functions with rules, as a scale of value, and as a direct indicator of value with an arbitrary link between money and any given value. Further, elaborating on valuation, a more proximal psychological referent of money, valuation is discussed as also occurring as a function of Saussure’s two aspects of signification. Specifically, valuation occurs with rules, understood as the interrelations of commodities, and in accord with an arbitrariness associated with all signs, interpretable as the subjective ordering of valued commodities. As money has been shown to represent value, in order to understand what money means, a psychological theory of money must address the meaning and process of valuation at the individual level.


The Meaning of Valuation

            As discussed above, in order to know a commodity’s value, a commodity must be understood in some relation to other commodities. As such, the process of valuation requires that a commodity be placed in some relation to other valued commodities (Simmel, 1992). At the individual level of analysis, this may be understood as the process by which people judge the relative worth of a commodity, necessarily requiring them to place that commodity in relation to other commodities. When a commodity moves from a place without relative value to being understood in relation to other commodities, it requires being brought into the domain of those things which have already been commodified (Simmel, 1992).

The domain of commodities which an individual possesses may be understood as the objects or concepts which are already familiar and valued by a subject (i.e., individual). Commodities which have already been valued are, then, objects or concepts which have been established in an individual’s system of valued objects (Simmel, 1992). So, the process of judgment which allows the valuation of a commodity requires that the phenomenon in question be seen as an object (see similar thought in Lacan’s discussion of the movement from id to ego as representing the process of subjectivity; 1968). In line with this thought, Simmel is quoted as describing that “insofar as it comes to depend on money, existence becomes more objective” (Poggi, 1993, p. 65). In order to understand money more fully, it is vital to comprehend this process of objectification and subjectivity, which many psychologists and psychoanalysts have discussed (e.g., Newberg, Newberg, & d’Aquili, 1997), but are largely based on Kant’s exploration of “the synthetic unity of apperception” (2003; although psychologists are often unaware of their debt to Kant).

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant (2003) discusses the notion that consciousness, and the basis of the subjective experience, is the process why which objects are represented, and understood as being represented, in the mind. In this way the subject acts as an equalizer of objects, putting all objects along a continuum which allows, and is, their interrelation and understanding by a subject through their representations in the mind. The subjective experience is that which is the unity of apperception, or the apparent unity of all represented objects, and thoughts about those representations, into a single and coherent conscious experience, which itself constitutes, and indicates, mind. Through their representations in mind, objects are seen as separate from mind, and objectified. This objectification occurs, as discussed by psychologists (e.g., Chomsky, 1959; Kohler, 1959) and Kant (2003), in accord with categories required for their understanding, which are not a part of an objective reality, but which are integral to our conscious experience (e.g., space, time, etc.), and allow the interrelating of all objects within a domain of analysis which is consciousness.

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Thus, in relation to objects, subjects “transform the differences that are apparent at first sight into a general affinity” (Simmel, 1992, p.59), allowing the creation, interpretation, and understanding of their environment. This understanding, brought about by bringing objects into a common domain, is similar to the process of commodity valuation described above, where the values of commodities are understood only in their relations to other commodities through their integration into a common metric of value. Thus, while the subjective experience of consciousness requires the integration of objects along a single continuum of perception (Kant, 2003), this is conceptually similar to the conference of their worth (Simmel, 1992). In order to understand the importance of objects, the acting subject determines their worth through their ordering and interrelating, itself “the psychic experience that makes value a part of our consciousness” (Simmel, 1992, p. 60).

An example by Simmel (1992) makes the relation more clear. Simmel proposes that, when asked for evidence of the reality of an object, individuals will discuss a variety of related objects, being contextually or historically placed, in explanation and justification of the existence of a particular object. Similarly, Simmel proposes, when asked for the reality of a commodity’s value, individuals will discuss an equal variety of related commodities, in order to provide a reference for understanding a particular commodity’s valuation. Succinctly, Simmel states that in order to make a measurement, one must use a measuring device with the same properties of the object to be measured (e.g., to measure length you must use a device which itself possesses length). Thus, when discussing objective forms, one uses similar forms in order to provide a common metric along which they may be compared; while, when discussing a value, one uses similar values in order to provide a scale along which a value may be understood.

As value has been indicated as being signified by money, and because value is inextricably related to subjectivity, this means that money may be conceptualized as representing the individual subjective experience. Money allows for the expression of an individual’s commodity objectification, itself analogous to the nature of the conscious subject. While the rules of monetary expression are a shared and social phenomenon (Habermas, 1987), the individual process of understanding and using money is one which requires the subject to order and objectify their world (Simmel, 1992). As Simmel states, “we invest economic objects with a quantity of value as if it were an inherent quality, and then hand them over to the process of exchange, to a mechanism determined by those quantities, to an impersonal confrontation between values, from which they return multiplied and more enjoyable to the final purpose, which was also their point of origin: subjective experience” (1998, p. 78).

While “the question as to what value really is, like the question as to what being is, is unanswerable” (Simmel, 1992, p. 62), some support for the linking of valuation with consciousness is provided by relating psychoanalytic ideas of the attitude of omnipotence, which is prevalent during childhood (Ferenczi, 1926), with results of empirical findings that children often believe money can purchase anything (Strauss, 1952). As commonly discussed by psychoanalysts such as Freud (1962), children are said to pass through a phase of narcissism, where boundaries of the subject have yet to be formed and children perceive their subjectivity to be limitless. If the subjective nature of commodification is inherent in the use of money, then the child’s inability to comprehend that money cannot purchase everything may be associated with the lack of boundaries between their own subjectivity and that of other entities.

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In summary, the process of subjectivity has been discussed as providing for the ability to compare and equate objects which are our environment. This process was explained as occurring in a manner quite similar to the process of valuation. Specifically, the ordering of commodities which allows for, and is, the relative valuations of objects may be understood as analogous to the process of consciousness. The meaning of this process for the psychology of money merits further discussion.


        The current work attempts to understand the psychological meaning and functioning of money and valuation. While a variety of authors have discussed the meaning of money (e.g., Danziger, 1958; Sutton, 1962) they have often done so by asking individuals to explain their feelings about money and have not attempted to critically analyze the meaning of money for the subject. As an example, Tang (1992) has investigated the notion that money may be conceptualized along dimensions of good versus bad, etc. While knowing if an individual believes money to be good or bad may be a useful predictor of various criteria, it gives no insight into the meaning beyond the fact that money, similar to any object, may be conceptualized along a good/bad dimension.

         In order to attempt an understanding of the psychological meaning of money, the current work has shown that money is an indicator of value. Value, in turn, has been discussed as being a property of commodities and their orderings. Importantly, both of the above explorations been shown as conforming to Saussure’s system of signification and valuation (1957), providing a mechanism for theoretically disentangling the meaning of money. However, in order understand the meaning of valuation, we draw on Kant’s (2003) discussion of the synthetic unity of apperception and attempt to show how the process of valuation is one which is analogous to consciousness itself.

        We conduct the above analyses of money and value for two reasons. Foremost, we attempt to elucidate processes which are often taken for granted in psychological inquiry, even within that body of inquiry which itself supposes to critically examine money. Secondly, we draw on Marx, Simmel, Saussure, and Kant in order to bring their much-needed philosophy to bear on the psychological study of money, and within psychology itself. We believe that an attempt to understand concepts as complex as money and value may only occur by denying the dogmatic adherence to modern empirical results and empirically-bound theorizing which is so common within the field of psychology (Martin & Sugarman, 2001).

      With the above analysis of money and value we also attempt to eschew the commonsensical notion that money is a rather simple entity, and hope that the current work allows for a reconceptualization of money and value. By imagining value as similar to consciousness, one may begin to construct the idea that what lies beneath the surface of the shiny coin is in fact the acting, subjective self, which uses money as a proxy for its own appraisal of objects’ worth, and through which the phenomenon of consciousness may be interpreted. With reasoning of this nature, we hope that psychologists who study money and value may being to expand the horizons both their theoretical and empirical work. However, the inadequacy of our discussion is indicated by the virtue of its length, and a much more concise discussion of the process that money indicates is needed.


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