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This month, we talk to Ásta Sveinsdóttir (San Francisco State University) about social-institutional entities, like money, the economy, political borders, nation states, and, interestingly, categories of people. Click here to listen to our conversation.

For a while now, philosophers have been interested in the status of things like money. A $5 bill has the purchasing power it has not because of any intrinsic features that belong to the paper it’s printed on, but because we all agree to treat it as having that purchasing power. By treating liquid currency as something that can be exchanged for lattes or ice cream cones, we confer on it the property of being something that can be exchanged for these things, but not for many other things (like a car, or the latest iPhone). That doesn’t mean this purchasing power isn’t real, or that it isn’t objectively true or false that a $5 bill currently has the purchasing power it has. Quite the contrary–these are verifiable/falsifiable objective facts that we can discuss. But it does mean that our attitudes are playing an special role in making such facts obtain. By contrast, the fact that Saturn is more massive than the planet Earth is a fact that does not obtain in virtue of what anyone thinks about anything. Saturn just is the size that it is, independently of how we treat it as being.

In this episode, Ásta defends the idea that having a particular social identity, like being Black, being a man, being disabled, or being queer, is more like having purchasing power than we might think. These are social statuses, and having one rather than the other makes you susceptible to certain special entitlements, while also putting you under certain special obligations.

Join us as we try to work through these difficult but important issues!

Matt Teichman