Monday, December 13, 2010

Ayn Rand's Latin

The Economist is in middle of hosting a debate between Lera Boroditsky and Mark Liberman over the role of language in shaping ideas. I have become interested in this issue recently from reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker, as a supporter of evolutionary psychology, argues that genes are the primary arbitrator of how people think and polemicizes against those, particularly on the left, who accept it as a matter of faith that society at large, even with its power over language, truly affects people. As with Pinker's arguments against the blank slate model of  the mind, the debate about the role of language seems to be one of defining your terms. No one is really about to say that language is irrelevant for discussions about ideas and no one is about to say that language form an unbreakable chain, fating all speakers of given language to certain modes of thought.

In the opening round Liberman, in the role of the opposition, attacks the popular belief that certain languages "lack a word for x." Interestingly enough, he takes a swipe at Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. In the novel Rand has a character claim that only Americans have a word for "making money." Liberman retortes:

But this cute theory runs aground on the shoals of fact. If we look up pecunia in Lewis and Short's Latin dictionary, we find the gloss "property, riches, wealth", and a reference to Cicero's use of the phrase "pecuniam facere", which deploys pecunia as the object of the verb facere (to make).

To be fair to Rand, there was an important shift in the early modern period regarding money, which rejected Aristotle's belief that money was something "barren." This belief was the foundation of the Church's opposition to lending money. Even in ancient times people recognized that wealth such as cattle, (the origins of the Latin word "pecunia") could be created by human hands. It was only in modern times, though, that the view of currency changed from something static to dynamic. Of course this still goes back before the United States. I guess Isaac Abarbanel was being an "American" when he defended interest lending, contrary to the Church and Aristotle, with the argument that "money could grow" by being lent out for productive uses.


Mikewind Dale said...

Wow, that's awesome that Abarbanel said that. I wonder if he and Aquinas had any communication? See here. Cf. also the entire school of Salamanca, about which I have not read much yet, but I've seen the following books:
Christians for Freedom: Late Scholastic Economics - Alejandro Antonio Chafuen
Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics (Studies in Ethics and Economics) - Alejandro A. Chafuen
School of Salamanca - Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson

Mikewind Dale said...

Oh, and Early Economic Thought in Spain, by the same Hutchinson

Mikewind Dale said...

Oh, and Spanish Economics in the Sixteenth Century: Theory, Policy, and Practice - Alexander Gallardo