On Intolerables: A Study in the Logic of Valuation

Urban, Wilbur M. “On Intolerables: A Study in the Logic of Valuation.” The Philosophical Review 24, no. 5 (1915): 477. https://doi.org/10.2307/2178760


To be able to say, 'this is unthinkable, inconceivable,' and today it with conviction, has ever been felt to be the beginning of wisdom. Man, greedy of this certainty, has tried in many different ways, often dogmatically and gratuitously, often with rare critical insight, and again with a final inner compunction, to set such limits to his thought and will.

But with time we have become critical of these fruitful exclusions. To be able to say with conviction, 'such and such a thing is inconceivable,' requires that one shall be either very knowing or unknowing, very simple or very astute. One learns that it is not inconceivable that water should be hard, that polyandry is not unthinkable. Our notions have been constantly revised, in the world of nature and morals alike, until finally there is nothing the opposite of which we find inconceivable except, perhaps, a few formal logical propositions.

On another point also man has learned wisdom in this matter. Not only has he discovered that he has constantly confused the unimaginable with the unthinkable, but that many propositions which he thought to be certain because their opposites are inconceivable, are really so merely because they are intolerable to his feeling and will. The philosophical saint of the Middle Ages found it inconceivable that the most perfect Being, having once been thought, should not also exist. To the post-Kantian philosopher, on the other hand, it is "intolerable that the highest inspirations of reason, appreciative of values, should have no existence, power and validity in the world of reality." The Cartesian rationalist found it "inconceivable that God should deceive"; for the voluntarist of today it is intolerable that the world should be mere appearance, or illusion, and from this intolerability for his will he argues the absolute existence of its objects.

In the light of these facts, the whole question of intolerable invites discussion, for no such discussion exists. If the existence of inconceivable, i. e., of propositions the opposites of which are inconceivable, is the sine qua non of an intellectualistic philosophy, so the sine qua non of any Value philosophy' must be the existence of certain ultimate value or values the opposites of which could properly be described as intolerables. The fact that precisely such intolerables are constantly being consciously or unconsciously assumed must be apparent to anyone familiar with modern philosophy. Whether, as is often hastily supposed, they are ultimately reducible to the willful and 'romantic' demand that the universe shall satisfy us, because the opposite would be intolerable, remains to be seen.

The question of the existence and nature of such intolerable is indeed the first problem which such a critical discussion invites. But immediately other questions arise. How is the intolerable related to the inconceivable? Are they two sides of the same shield, as is often supposed, for instance, in a type of idealism such as Banquet’s? Are any propositions about reality deducible from them? What is their place in a system of values? These questions, and others like them, indicate the range of problems thus opened up, and the place such a discussion may properly claim in philosophical thought.


And first as to the question of fact. Are there any intolerables? Intolerables bureau? There can be no doubt, I think, that we use this predicate with the same implication of universality with which we use inconceivability. Is such a use justifiable?

I have interested myself in gathering examples of those things that the philosophers find intolerable. They range all the way from the unrequited affection of the most ephemeral insect to the eternal pains of the damned, from the thought that two and two should not make four to the thought that the entire world of sense and thought should be an illusion. "Nietzsche," says Rickert, “found absolute physics intolerable, but who does not? “It is apparent from the start that distinctions are here in order.

In the first place, there is evidently an equivocation in our use of the term intolerable similar to that found in the term inconceivable. The inconceivable is often identified with the unimaginable. What we can contemplate in the sense of imagination is wholly a psychological matter. Similarly, what we can tolerate in contemplation is in at least one sense of the word wholly a matter of sensibility.

That there are psychological limits to sense and sensibility were well aware. I find things unbearable in this sense and pass into unconsciousness and die. So also, there are limits to my sympathetic contemplation of distress and horror, beyond which lies madness. On the other hand, we can get used to anything, it is said, even hanging, and in so far as sense and sensibility are concerned this seems to be very nearly true. It is in no wise different from that form of sensibility we call moral. It is intolerable, we cry, and lo we tolerate it first endure and finally embrace. There is scarcely an element of our moral sensibility (it is the old story of relativism) the opposite of which has not been found tolerable enough. The a priori intolerable, such as incest, seems a chimera.

Perhaps then we may say that as a matter of fact everything imaginable is also tolerable to some sensibility, malevolent delight in torture, the contemplation of the pains of the damned, in short, the opposites of all the ordinary objects of desire, sensibility and sympathy. Ugliness may become a delight, untruth an atmosphere in which we find ourselves at ease. Death, against which ordinary sensibility revolts, may become a boon, and complete extinction, which Ferrier thought a priori inconceivable, may not only be conceivable, but tolerable and actually willed. And as for the intolerables of the philosopher, 'absolute physics’ of an illusory world, these may not only be tolerable but, as anyone who has read the philosophers knows, the source of peculiar delights. Nothing in itself is intolerable, and therefore, nothing in this sense is absolutely valuable. Actual transvalue values, even metaphysical values, is possible without limit.

But more than this and this is a point to consider especially worthy of note there are innumerable situations actually intolerable to us in reality, that become tolerable enough in imagination and thought. I refer here to the extension of the- limits of the tolerable through artistic forms of representation.

The cardinal illustration of this is, of course, tragedy. The paradox of tragedy, the topic of endless discussion, is just that we find the intolerable tolerable, that we take delight in pain, and that what we flee in reality, we seek in the form of aesthetic illusion. Tragedy is, however, merely the most conspicuous form of this curious division of our natures. That which one would not tolerate, much less will, in the world of moral realities, one not only endures but by sympathy actually wills in the world of poetry and fiction. Anyone who has observed this curious world must have wondered at the strange indulgence crimes of passion and irresistible desires there enjoy; at the reversal of moral values, the possibility of indefinite transvaluation this world affords. But strangest of all is the extension of the tolerable in the tragic. Before the tragic destruction of the moral hero, for instance, we stand with a moral indifference, nay with a tragic elevation, an aesthetic delight, which presents, as Th. Lessing has said, an axiological fact of a peculiar and significant sort. It is just this extension of the tolerable through the aesthetic which commanded Nietzsche's attention. Insight into madness and error, even as a condition of life, would be without art"gar nicht auszuhalten" He suggests that in art we can bear what we otherwise could not. With the psychology of these phenomena with the debated question whether our sympathetic participation has to do with ‘real feeling' or Schein-gefuhle we need not bother ourselves here .It is sufficient that the assumption of the reality of the object is the condition of the aesthetic contemplation, and that a sphere of reality is created in which the limits of what is endurable and tolerable for our sensibility are immensely extended, and that this must be taken into account in our problem of ultimate intolerables. I emphasize the point here because of important bearings later.

If then, to draw these facts together, we understand by the tolerable that which is endurable for sensibility, there seems ground for saying that no objects of such sensibility are intolerable uberhaupt.


Is this then the end of our study? Rather may we not well ask whether this is really what is meant by the philosopher when in one way or another he makes use of this concept of the 'apriorism intolerable,' when, for instance, immortality is established for a Kant because the opposite is intolerable for the moral consciousness, or when Lutze finds it intolerable that the highest inspirations of reason, appreciative of values, are without power and validity in the world of reality? Evidently it is not. Whether rightly or not. These thinkers believe that such postulates as these, the opposites of which are for them intolerable, and for which they assume universality, are somehow independent of the mutations of sensibility described. Between sensibility and the apprehension of value a distinction is made, a distinction analogous to that made by such intellectualists as Anselm and Descartes between that which can be thought and not imagined, and that which can be imagined but not thought. Is such an analogy capable of being carried out? Is it not conceivable, at least, that, while there are no objects or situations which, as a result of habit and custom and dulling of sensitivity, may not become tolerable, and none which through imaginative contemplation in the aesthetic mode may not become only endurable but actually enjoyed, there may yet be postulates of the will, the opposites of which would really be intolerable in this axiological sense?

I believe not only that the distinction here made is valid, but also that the philosophers who, in implying this distinction, insist that there are intolerables for the 'practical reason' or for the 'pure will' are essentially sound. They may be wrong in their definition of the intolerable; none of them may have hit upon that which is really intolerable; but the principle underlying their position is not only valid but of considerable theoretic importance. In developing my position, I will make use of an illustration which seems almost made for our purpose. It is a paragraph from Wundt's Ethics on what might be characterized as the 'limits of moral contemplation.'

"If we could be absolutely assured," Wundt writes, "of the misery of a descendant living two centuries hence, we should probably not be much disturbed. It would trouble us more to believe that the state and nation to which we belong were to perish in a few generations. The prospect would have to be postponed for several centuries at least before our knowledge that all the works of time must be destroyed would make it tolerable. But there is one idea that would be forever intolerable, though its realization were thought of as thousands of years distant: it is the thought that humanity with all its intellectual and moral toil, may vanish without leaving a trace, and that not even a memory of it may endure in any mind." From the intolerability of this conception Wundt actually goes on to infer the reality of its opposite. "The confidence in this reality is born," it is true, "of faith not of knowledge, “but of a "faith based on a dialectical analysis of the concept of moral end which shows that every given end is only proximate, not ultimate is thus finally a means to the attainment of an imperishable goal."

This is, I repeat, an illustration made, as it were, for our purpose, and is worth close consideration for several reasons.

In the first place it purports to be an empirical analysis of our actual sense of value and is made by a psychologist not accustomed to speaking hastily in such matters. It fairly represents what men feel in the matter; at least the answers to a questionnaire submitted to my students for a number of years leads me to think. In the second place, the illustration brings out clearly the distinction between sensibility and value with which we have been concerned. For you will note that, as the matter is he represented, it is precisely the contemplation of the destruction of that which appeals most to our sensibility, namely our less remote descendants and the nation to which we are attached, that is tolerable, while the idea that is absolutely intolerable, no matter how remote in time its realization is conceived to be, is one that makes no immediate appeal to our sensibility and sympathy, namely the thought of the ultimate futility of effort, the ultimate destruction of values.

In the third place, it contains the nerve of all the arguments from the intolerable with which we are here concerned. However, it may be phrased, whether as an "instinct which tells us that reality is the support of values" (Bosanquet), as the postulate that 'the universe must satisfy us' or as the 'conservation of values,' it is always because the opposite is intolerable that the truth of the propositions is believed. Has then this intolerable the universality here claimed for it? As yet we are dealing merely with the question of fact, and I think we must admit that there are many who do not find it so. Not only do they find it wholly tolerable to contemplate the possibility of the opposite of this postulate of the conservation of values, but also the certainty of the still more drastic picture which physical science is supposed to give of our world and it’s passing away. Nietzsche may have found absolute physics intolerable, but certainly Mr. Russell and others do not.

I think, however, it is perfectly fair to doubt whether the expressions of the latter should be taken at their face value. When Mr. Russell, for example, in his discussion of tragedy in the essay entitled "The Free Man's Worship," finds it possible, not only to endure with resignation, but even to find a certain tragical elevation in the very thought that Wundt finds intolerable, maybe not well ask whether it is not really an aesthetic attitude with which we are here concerned; whether it is not precisely a case of that extension of the tolerable through aesthetic contemplation of which we have already spoken? There are, as we have pointed out, probably no limits to what may be found tolerable in such aesthetic contemplation, but it may well be questioned whether such a mood can be or should be taken as final.

That it is essentially an aesthetic attitude, and indeed one akin to that with which we face the destruction of the tragic hero, will not be doubted by anyone who has read the essay in question. It is, moreover, a mood common enough, and one wholly accessible to anyone with the powers of abstraction and isolation necessary to aesthetic contemplation. But that this dissociation of value and reality is ultimately possible may still be questioned. The question we have come upon here really involves one of the fundamental problems of value theory. Are the values of the true, the good, the beautiful, independent values; or do they all presuppose the ultimate value of reality? Von Hartmann has a striking passage that runs somewhat as follows: “The beauty value of the world abstracts from all reality in that it is concerned wholly with aesthetic appearance. From the positive character of this value it follows, no more than from the world’s value for knowledge, that also as reality, as a sum of objective real things, it has a positive value. Suppose the world were a paragon of evil, a miscarriage or a hell, it would still be a value for knowledge, and for the artist beautiful even though this were merely that the painter might study the light effects of this hell or the poet sing the pains of the damned."1 Now what impresses me in a passage such as this is not the moral insensibility which seems to underlie it. I am willing to believe that thieveries hell might be endurable for the scientist while he is discovering say new processes of combustion, or for the artist while he is striving to catch the light which in very truth never was on land or sea. I can indeed put myself in his place; I can share his moments of abstraction. But that he should say that this knowledge and beauty have value in any ultimate sense; that in the face of the complete dissociation of reality from the good, he can speak of values at all, passes my comprehension. Such dissociation is not intolerable for sensibility perhaps, but for any ultimate contemplation, ontological or metaphysical if you will, it is intolerable. Somehow the positive value of the beauty or the knowledge does imply that the objects, as reality, have positive value.

That there are relative dissociations of this sort everyone must of course admit. A novel, we are told, may reach the highest value of beauty and yet its characters may historically, as objects of logical truth connection, be without any value. Moreover, the deed of the hero may be a moral crime. On the other hand, an achievement may deserve the highest possible ethical estimation and yet may nowhere offer a hold for aesthetic enjoyment. These are perhaps extreme statements. It may well be questioned whether an element of logical truth connection is not a presupposition of beauty; whether the highest possible ethical estimation does not include an element of the aesthetic. But, assuming them to be relatively true, these partial dissociations cannot be taken as ultimate, nor can partial discrepancies between value and reality be pleaded as an argument for complete and final dissociation. They represent moods of our sensibility, but it is false philosophy to crystallize these moods into absolute values. Life constantly shows us these values clashing with each other our whole existence is filled with the tension of their opposing forces but so soon as we attempt to live an entire life, to bring the moods of life together, these contradictions do become intolerable, and the contemplation of their final dissociation would be the genuinely axiological intolerable.

It may, of course, be said that we do not need to bring the moods of life together, to live an entire life, in order to value. We do not need to ask what the meaning or value of it all is in order to experience the separate values. Such a demand itself is, you may say, but an expression of individual willfulness or sensibility. Either it is a matter of sensibility it depends upon what sort of man you are, as Fichte would say or a merely willful voluntarism which declares that ' the willing of a unitary world is the condition of our discussing values at all.' I am not such a man; I do not find it necessary to will such a world. Therefore, the opposite is not intolerable. Therefore, there is nothing more to say.

I do not believe that we are left in such a situation, and the reasons for this belief will appear in the course of the discussion. But, returning to the point which occasioned this digression, I feel sure we may at least say, after this study, that the tragical elevation in the face of a world totally indifferent to values Isa mood of sensibility a mood indeed that we may all share at times, but still with most of us a mood and not a belief. Its possibility is but an extreme case of certain psychological laws of our sensibility and constitutes no valid argument against the essential intolerability of an absolute dissociation between value and reality.

In the case of Mr. Russell, a certain luxuriating in the emotions which the contemplation of this dissociation induces, suggests even a kind of sentimentality. For him the good is not only a quality of some timeless essences, but the meaning of this quality is that these essences ought to exist, or, if anything exists at all, it ought to conform to them. That he should find a certain perverted sublimity in the contemplation of the "abysm of wrong “which the total indifference of reality to this demand discloses, may perhaps be conceivable. There seem to be no limits to possibility in this direction. But that he should think that the good is somehow good, notwithstanding, is hard to understand. One should not call names in philosophy, but this mythical good seems to have betrayed Mr. Russell into a form of sentimentality which is much more objectionable than that alleged tube displayed by those who say things must be valuable in order to exist at all.

Let us then seek to generalize the results of our analysis thus far. We have been concerned with the simple question of fact, and there are two facts which seem to be of importance. In the first place, if by 'intolerable' we understand intolerable foursome sensibility, there seem to be no limits to what our sensibility may find tolerable. Transvaluation of values seems to be in this sense practically unlimited. In the second place, the facts compel us to recognize that there is no value the opposite of which cannot be affirmed. That which is intolerable to the ethical consciousness may be tolerable from the aesthetic or scientific point of view. That which is intolerable to either of the latter may be easily taken up into the moral. But there seems good reason for believing that a distinction between sensibility and valuation is justified by the facts, that in this sense we may distinguish between an aesthetic imagination Anda genuine contemplation of situations, and that for the latter there are situations that are genuinely intolerable, intolerable uberhaupt. Such a situation is the absolute and final dissociation between value and reality which Wundt's illustration brings vividly before us.


Suppose then there is something intolerable, in this ultimate, axiological sense what of it? Surely, the reader will exclaim, you do not propose even to consider the possibility of using that as a basis of any inference about reality. Certainly, it will be said, you ought not to assert the truth of any proposition about the world because you find the contemplation of its opposite intolerable. Even in formal logic the principle of the inconceivability of the opposite is already in bad odor; do you hope, at this late day, to reassert it in a region where it would be still more precarious?

To this I will answer merely that precisely such reasoning has formed the basis of a very respectable portion of philosophy, and I propose to examine it on its own merits. For by this time, it must be clear, not only where the intolerable is supposed to be found, but also what use is made of it. There is, it is held, 'an instinct that tells us that reality is the support of values,' and in some way the certainty of that proposition is supposed to follow from the intolerability of the opposite. Lutze is certain that values 'have existence, power and validity in the real world because it is intolerable that they should not.' Banqueters the same line of thought in his argument for immortality, showing however, that it is merely the 'conservation of values' that we really want. In short, there is a considerable body of philosophical thought that holds to the principle that ‘reality must be ultimately valuable,' or must 'conserve values, ‘however you may wish to express it, and rests the truth of this principle upon the intolerability of the opposite. But why is it supposed that from this intolerability of the opposite we can conclude that there is this necessary relation between value and reality?

It is at this point evidently that our critical study begins. Wundt, as we have seen, rests it, not upon empirical knowledge, but upon what he calls a "dialectical analysis of the moral end, “and in this, I think we may say, he fairly represents what is in the minds of thinkers of this type. Some such a priori necessity is, I presume, taken for granted in the view we have been exposing. But, in order that we may attack this problem with any hope of success, a more careful preliminary analysis is necessary, and I must ask the reader to bear with a somewhat technical discussion.

In the first place, the problem must be restated, and somewhat more broadly. If this belief rests upon a dialectical analysis, it is ultimately an analysis of the value notion rather than of the moral end. For moral ends may conceivably be but one type of end, and it is now generally admitted that ends presuppose values, rather than values ends. We have then the more ultimate question, whether the intolerability of the opposite of this relation of value to reality springs from any dialectical analysis of the value notion itself.

In the second place, the problem must be divided. We must first ask whether there are any a priori propositions about value at all, and whether these lead in any way to propositions about reality. It will then be time to ask whether this specific belief in the conservation of value is justified. For it is entirely possible that the first may be true and the second untrue.

Are there any a priori elements in value, and valuation? That is, are there any a priori propositions about value; and if so, how are they related to actual, empirical valuation? Both of these questions, for they are really different questions, as we shall see, require the most careful consideration.

One way to approach the problem of the a priori is to ask this question, whether we can contemplate the opposite of a proposition. It is possible, for instance, to contemplate a world in which men never die, but not one in which two and two do not make four. "We feel," says Mr. Russell, “that such a world, if there were one, would upset the whole fabric of our knowledge and reduce us to utter doubt." How is it now with the world of values? Are there any propositions here the contemplation of the opposite of which is we will not as yet say intolerable, but impossible?

Now, as we have already seen, there are many things in this sphere also which men have thought they could not contemplate, but which nevertheless they can, perfectly well. It would be possible, I suppose, to contemplate a world in which any actual valuation should be reversed, a world for instance in which lying should be put above truth, and ugliness preferred to beauty, a world even in which one could say, "Evil (in the narrower sense) be thou my good." We can contemplate a world in which men never die, and perhaps equally a world in which happiness is not better than unhappiness, or life better than death. It seems possible to contemplate any transvaluation of values whatsoever, at least that is the inference to be drawn from the results of the first part of this paper. There is no value the opposite of which cannot be affirmed.

But this by no means settles the question of the a priori in the realm of value. It must, for one thing, be patent that any such transvaluation, however complete, leaves the value relation itself untouched. I may say, unhappiness is better than happiness, untruth is better than truth, evil be thou my good, but the relation 'better in all cases remains. For myself, I think that this 'form of value' is an inseparable aspect of all objects as such, that every object must fall somewhere in the scale of positive or negative value with the same a priori necessity that an object must be either existent or non-existent. But without insisting upon this point, which may be disputed (it has been held for instance that this is true only of existents),it is sufficient for our purpose to make clear that, given any value objects, this relation is necessary, and that any transvaluation of values leaves the form of values untouched.

It is then impossible to contemplate a world in which values do not fall into a relation of 'higher and lower.' Any value order is conceivable, because it is empirical in origin, but given a world in which there are any three values whatever, it is inconceivable that one of them should not fall between the other two. This lies in the dialectical analysis of the value notion itself, and the opposite would upset the whole fabric of value no less than the contemplation of a world in which two and two do not make four would upset the whole fabric of our knowledge.2

There is then, I think, beyond question something that maybe said a priori about value as such, quite apart from any relations of particular values to feeling and will. That there are other propositions of this character I do not deny and am inclined in fact to believe. But this is sufficient for our present purpose.

Having found then something that may be said a priori about value, let us see what bearing it has upon our problem. Our question was this: Given that there is any a priori knowledge of value, can we proceed to any propositions about the relation of value to reality?

Now, if we examine closely the proposition under consideration, two things will, I think, become apparent. In the first place it is clear that, because we cannot contemplate a world of values in which the relations in question are not found, it by no means follows either that we know what these relations are, or in fact that there are any values in reality at all. From the inconceivability of the opposite no propositions about reality can be inferred.

In the second place, it is equally clear that while this proposition about values is one the opposite of which is inconceivable, it could scarcely be said to be intolerable. Indeed, when one looks at the matter closely the word 'intolerable' in this connection seems to be meaningless. It has meaning only in connection with feeling and will, and the proposition here made about value is concerned with value as such, with value as contemplated apart from reality and apart from feeling and will. For while every object that becomes a value, and thus enters into relations with feeling and will, takes on necessarily these relations, this 'value form,' the form lies in the nature of value itself, irrespective of any relation to feeling or will.

But let us look more deeply into the question. And first, let us see whether there is not after all some relation between the inconceivable and the intolerable. Certainly, the inconceivable does not bring with it the intolerable, for intolerability has meaning only where feeling and will are concerned. But if there were some necessary dialectical relations between the cognition of value and actual valuation, between value and feeling and will, that which is intolerable might have some definite relation to the inconceivable.