What is the Function of a General Theory of Value

Urban, Wilbur. “What Is the Function of a General Theory of Value?” The Philosophical Review 17, no. 1 (1908): 42. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177698

THERE has scarcely been a time in the history of thought when the problem of ' value ' has so occupied the centre of attention as at present. Fundamental changes in the actual values of mankind, giving rise to what has been well called 'our anxious morality,' with its characteristic talk of creating and conserving values, has brought with it what may, without exaggeration, be described as a gradual shifting of the philosophical centre of gravity from the problem of knowledge to the problem of values. The problem of knowledge has itself become, in some quarters wholly, in others partially, a problem of value.

The historical causes of this, until recently silent, change of attitude are, in a general way, clear enough. The change from intellectualism to voluntarism, the rigorous discipline of the human soul through the almost universal application of the concept of evolution and the struggle for existence, with their ideas of selective and survival values, these are explanations which immediately suggest themselves; and yet they are but general and superficial characterizations of a still more fundamental crisis of the social will, a crisis which has its roots deep in the necessities of things, and which we are as yet scarcely able to understand.

Whatever the causes, the effects of the change are everywhere in evidence. This gradual change in actual values has found a mouthpiece, if somewhat rhetorical and rhapsodical, in Nietzsche's cry of "transvaluation of all values." But this cry has been echoed by other hearts and minds, and that which began as a species of poetry has passed into sober prose. Of chief importance is the transition from the accumulation of knowledge to its evaluation. To say nothing of the growing attempt to evaluate the results of physical science in the interests of a more comprehensive natural philosophy, a movement which mayor may not have some connection with Nietzsche's arraignment of science in its present form, we may find sufficient evidences of this change of heart in the social and moral sciences, where the problem of value lies closer to the surface. "While formerly," we are told, "it was almost wholly the external structure of the social life, and the economic values which it produces, that received attention, now it is the meaning of this life for the human soul, its spiritual origin and spiritual effects, which finds expression." In short it is the problem of evaluation.

Corresponding to this change in practical attitude has appeared the more theoretical consciousness of, as it were, a new side of reality. We have been scarcely aware, so we are told, that our entire life, on its conscious side, is one continuous series of feelings of value and evaluations, of explicit judgments and implicit assumptions of value; and that it is only by reason of this very fact, that they are valued, that the mechanically determined elements of reality in any sense have meaning for us. Far from being a mere fact among other facts, that which we mean by our evaluation of objects is something independent of this world, and so little merely a part of it that it is rather the whole world seen from a special point of view. Over against a world of facts is a set world of values.

But if this growing consciousness of the problem of value has indeed reached a point where we are conscious of a world of values, where the terms ethical, aesthetic, and even truth values, are in every mouth, and where the thought of a special theory of value ' is no longer novel, with it has also come the realization that philosophy, and the philosophical disciplines which are traditionally concerned with values, are, in their present form, not quite in a position to take possession of the new world. It is true that for some time metaphysics has seemed to many to be but a theory of value; but the traditional problems as well as the traditional methods of that discipline are still such as to make the question of values subordinate to the question of 'being.' Nor Are the special sciences which deal with facts of value able, as special disciplines, to cope with the changes, in both form and content of discussion, which this new setting of the problem has brought about. An harmonious division of labor between economics, ethics, and aesthetics has produced a completed product which, for various and sufficient reasons, does not meet the need. It is rather precisely because of this division of labor, unwisely conceived, that the results are unsatisfactory. More and more the conviction gains ground that a general theory of value, which shall comprehend in a systematic and scientific way all spheres of human values, is an absolute necessity.

It has been said that the most fruitful metaphysical thought of the present is to be found in the special sciences. While perhaps not quite true, such a statement has this element of truth, that it is within the special sciences that the most significant questions of philosophy first make their appearance. Similarly, the necessity of solving certain special questions of value within the science of economics, ethics, and aesthetics, has developed concepts whose significance extends far beyond these limits, and which therefore afford the material for more general and systematic reflections.

Of first importance is the 'theory of value' which Economics has developed for its special purposes. Narrow as this purpose is (for it is not so long ago that an economist, F. von Wieser was of the opinion that he had fulfilled his intention of "treating exhaustively the entire sphere of worth phenomena without an exception," although his investigations did not once go beyond the region of economic goods), nevertheless, the very limitation of its activities to a narrow range of problems has led to an intensive analysis of certain facts and laws of valuation which should have long since furnished an example to ethics, and which must now furnish both the stimulus and the discipline for any-one who seeks to comprehend the larger field. But this limitation of interest has obscured wider relations, knowledge of which would have been fruitful for the special work of the economist himself, and, in some cases, has led to fallacies of both observation and inference, which a more philosophical treatment of facts would have corrected. These limitations are, however, being overcome. The Exigencies of translating economic and sociological conceptions, of correlating economics with larger social values, have brought about a notable change. Indeed, much of the movement in the direction of a more general theory comes from economics itself. Gradually the opposition to theory in this sphere is giving way, and at the same time the feeling increases that economic values are but a special class of human worths, and that they can be understood only in their relations, especially in their relation to ethical values.

Ethics, likewise, has its contributions to make to a general theory of value. Chief among these is its appreciative analysis and descriptions of qualitatively different attitudes and dispositions, and its elaboration of a doctrine of norms of obligation and virtue in which the appreciative distinctions of the race have been fixed. To this must be added the development of hypotheses as to the nature of the ultimate good, which, while they have not led to any final solution, have nevertheless served to develop and organize the normative point of view. But it is precisely because of this preoccupation with ultimate norms and abstractions that ethics is in no position to meet the advances of economics. For ethics, as it is commonly understood, still remains too much in the traditions of the Greeks, and, instead of seeking a psychologically founded theory of value, contents itself with a theory of abstract goods, consisting in an external and often arbitrary classification and evaluation of objects of desire, without any vital sense of the great problems involved in the processes and laws of desire themselves.

Especially harmful, moreover, has been the Kantian distinction between the 'empirical' and the 'intelligible' will, and the narrowing effect of the concept of abstract imperatives. Although no longer present in its original form, it still exercises influence through the unfortunate antithesis of facts and values, of genesis and validity. For where such distinctions are made ultimately, where the laws of the empirical will are conceived to be irrelevant, or even hostile, to the will that values, there a science of values is impossible.

Where, on the other hand, ethics has broken loose from these bonds, the new-found freedom has given rise to such a multitude of irreconcilable principles that it is immediately apparent that the certainty of method, which makes possible internal unity of principles and harmonious external relations with other sciences, is still lacking. It has even been seriously doubted whether ethics can maintain its place as a special science, whether it is not doomed to break up, on the one hand, into a part of psychology, the task of which shall be to analyse the individual feelings, judgments, and acts of will, the content of which has the moral predicate, and, on the other hand, into a part of sociology, which shall portray the forms and content of the common life which stand in relations to the ethical obligation of the individual. Its Double character will, it is thought, ultimately prove its undoing.

Doubtful though such predictions may rightly be held to be, for the boundaries of sciences are determined by other motives than those of mere logic, and there are practical reasons which will plead strongly for the integrity of ethics as a separate discipline, still there can be no doubt that the inconsequent character of the science, in its present state, unfits it for leadership in the attempt to conceive valuation in its more general aspects. Like Economics it has, to be sure, recently been looking beyond its narrowly conceived province, and seeking points of contact with its neighbors, the breaking up of its solidarity is, in one sense, but an outward sign of an inward grace, but this is in itself not sufficient to make of ethics the science of values par excellence.

Nor is such a science to be developed by a merely external fusion of elements from both of the preceding sciences, with perhaps the addition of a few judicious reflections upon aesthetic and religious values. To meet the obvious necessities of the situation there is required, rather, a systematic treatment of human values in their mutual relations, together with the psychology of feeling and will upon which such a theory must rest. What is needed is a point of view and method which go beyond the special motives of economics and ethics, and find common ground in a conception and purpose which unites them both. Thus, while economics has been thought to be a descriptive and explanatory science, and has contented itself with description of the empirical laws of valuation for the purposes of control, it has really been shot through with assumptions of a normative character, and has been fruitful in disclosing actual standards of value which ethics has often failed to estimate at their proper worth. On the other hand, ethics, although claiming to be a normative science, has found it necessary to investigate the phenomenology of feeling and will, without, however, as I shall seek to show later, succeeding in making these investigations sufficiently fruitful for its more ultimate purposes. The desideratum, therefore, seems to be to find a method which shall unite in some more fruitful way the descriptive and the normative points of view, a method which shall know how to interpret the norms of the so-called intelligible' will in terms of the laws of the 'empirical' will.


I have stated thus broadly, and at some length, what I conceived to be the problem of a general theory of value, in order that we may have a point of view from which to estimate properly the significance of the special methods of investigation which have recently developed in this field. The range of the problem might, indeed, be conceived even more broadly. From one point of view at least, as has already been intimated, truths are values, both instrumental and intrinsic. The processes of acquisition, enjoyment, and utilization of truth are processes of valuation, related in certain definite ways to the values of economics, ethics, and aesthetics, and to ignore these relations means an emasculation of the full meaning of the truth. While in the making, truth has certain instrumental values which are part of its meaning. When made, believed, and enjoyed, it acquires certain complementary values which are either part or the whole of its meanings as truth. Thus, it is perhaps not too much to claim that our conception of knowledge will gain much from the investigations of a general theory of value. Be that as it may, we shall, for the immediate purposes of this discussion, confine our attention to the problem as already defined.

When, moreover, the problem is thus stated, it is also determined for us the logic of our procedure in estimating the methods employed in its solution. For, upon closer inspection, the problem is seen really to be two-fold: the descriptive or psychological and the normative or 'axiological,' as I have elsewhere described it. The function of valuation has two aspects. On The one hand, we feel the value of the objects; on the other hand, we evaluate these objects, and ultimately the experiences of value themselves. The first aspect is that of process, the conditions and laws of which are to be determined; the second aspect is that of function and meaning, the norms of which are to be developed. Between these two aspects there is evidently a close relation. We cannot feel the value of an object without judging or assuming it to have some sort of reality, nor can we pass a normative judgment without at the same time assuming or postulating its conformity with the laws of feeling and will. Out of this double aspect of the problem arises all the special questions which theory of value has to solve, and growth of insight into the nature of the relations between these two problems is the test of the value of the solutions.


Let us, then, first consider the contributions which recent psychological analysis has made to our knowledge of the phenomenology of judgments of value and their objects. The main results of this analysis are, I think it may be said, twofold: (I) The Discovery of certain new facts which have led to a reformation of our conception of the nature and conditions of the worth-judgment, and consequently to a reconstruction of our conception of the laws of worth-judgment, or, more generally, of valuation; (2) as a result of these changes, it. has been possible to bring about the coordination of the different types of work-attitude and of objects of value, demanded by a general theory of value, and thus to explain in terms of empirical laws spheres of valuation into which such explanation (von unten) has not yet penetrated.

The first of these results may best be understood by contrasting the present concept of the value-judgment with preceding views. In the past there have been two main views, corresponding to the opposition between the empirical and rationalist theories already described. The empirical theory, in its old form, held that every value judgment is determined by some feeling or desire, feeling being viewed as the effect or feeling-tone of sensation, perception, or idea, according to the theory of feeling held, and desire being viewed as the effect of feeling. Conversely, it was held that all feeling and desire, positive or negative, is ipso facto valuation. All values were accordingly reduced to two types, immediate or intrinsic sensation-feelings, and mediated or instrumental utility-values, associated with the primary and immediate. In contrast to this was the dualistic theory (whether rationalistic or voluntaristic in form of expression), which exempted certain ideal values of ethics and aesthetics from this type of determination. As old as Plato, but more recently expressed in the Kantian antithesis of the empirical and the intelligible will, it holds, in whatever form it may appear, that these ideal values are constituted by acts of reason or will, for which, while they may, perhaps, have their empirical, psychological aspect, this empirical aspect is, nevertheless, irrelevant. They are not temporally conditioned, but timeless values.

The results of recent psychological analysis have made this dualism impossible, and have, moreover, brought about such a reconstruction of the empirical theory as to make possible the inclusion of the ideal values within the region of empirical analysis and explanation. In the first place, they have had the negative result of showing that the feeling of value is not the effect of cognitive content as such and is not coextensive with feeling or desire. It's always reality-feeling, and presupposes some cognitive act of presumption, judgment, or assumption. Passive feelings, satisfaction of desire, are in themselves not feelings of value. They can at most create the dispositional conditions which, when actualized through cognitive acts, give rise to feelings of value. This leads to an important extension in our concept of types of work-attitudes and objects. We have feelings of intrinsic value wherever we have reality-feeling, whether the presupposition of that feeling presumption, judgment, or assumption. We have feelings of instrumental value whenever an object is connected by relational judgments with these feelings of reality. Objects of value are both perceptual and ideal, objects immediately perceived or judged to exist, and objects which are ideal constructions, related to the immediate feeling of reality through relational judgments and assumptions. Moreover, it is possible to show a genetic relation between these presuppositions, and to classify the different attitudes and objects of valuation in terms of their genesis. This is the first step in the correlation of the different values, intrinsic and instrumental, economic, ethical, and aesthetic, required as a basis of a general theory of value.

As a result of this more adequate analysis of the empirical conditions of the value-judgment, there is opened up the possibility of discovering the empirical laws of all types of valuation. This extension of the concept of empirical law into all regions of values, the necessary condition of any general theory of value, is made possible by the reconstruction of the concept of empirical law itself, consequent upon the more adequate analysis of the value-judgment.

By the laws of valuation, in the larger sense of the term, may be understood any uniformity in the manner in which value judgments are modified, either qualitatively or quantitatively, and in the light of which the relative values of objects may be determined. Taking the concept of law in this broader sense, it's obvious that there would necessarily be a dualistic conception of the nature of these laws, corresponding to the different conceptions of the nature of the value-judgment already considered. Thus, the principle of universalization expressed in the Kantian Maxim, according to which the capacity of an ideal object (as embodied in an act or disposition presupposed by the act) for extension and continuation is made the measure of its moral value, is considered to be the 'intelligible law' of the objective or normative value of the act, as distinguished from its subjective and empirical value, determined by the empirical laws of feeling and desire.

In the narrower sense, however, as for instance in the usage of economics already referred to, laws of valuation are empirical laws of mutation of the value of an object based upon fundamental laws of feeling and desire, and from which it is believed that a measure of value can be inferred. Such are the law of 'Diminishing Value' for intrinsic values and of 'Marginal Utility' for instrumental values, together with the law of 'Complementary Values,’ which is conceived to modify the working of both the preceding laws. These empirical laws are based upon more ultimate psychological laws of feeling and will, such as the law of dulling of sensitivity with repetition and the law of satiety with overstimulation; and the psychological laws according to which both dulling of sensitivity and satiety can be modified by certain combinations and rearrangements of the objects of desire and feeling. These are the so-called 'laws of subjective value, 'because they describe the laws effective in determining the value judgments of the individual. But they lead to the development of certain 'laws of objective value’ the exchange value or price of an object, as determined by supply and demand, these forces being determined by the laws of subjective value.

Now the result of psychological analysis has been to reconstruct and reinterpret these empirical laws as to make them applicable to all types of objects and feelings of value, and thus to relate normative judgments to actual feelings of value. And it accomplishes this, first of all, by denying the psychological assumptions upon which the old formulation of the empirical laws rested. When Kant insisted upon the non-empirical character of the moral judgment and sense of obligation, and upon the nature of the aesthetic as desireless intuition, it was generally assumed, it must be remembered, and Kant shared the assumption, that there are only two types of feelings of value, immediate sensuous pleasure and the feeling of utility, indirectly and instrumentally connected with this immediacy, and that to these the laws of dulling of sensitivity and satiety apply universally. If this assumption of Bentham and his followers be granted, there is ground for the exception of certain ideal values, which are neither sense feelings nor utility-feelings, but rather intrinsic values which, for the individual at least, may be absolute. But this assumption is by no means necessary. The denial of the view that feeling of value is coextensive with feeling and desire follows from the recognition that feelings of value are characterized by certain cognitive presuppositions. But it follows with equal necessity that an application of these laws to value-feelings in general is not possible until we have investigated the effect of the factors of quantity (repetition and amount) upon feelings of reality, judgment and assumption feelings, and upon the dispositions which condition them. When thus viewed, our entire conception of the laws of valuation is changed. They become laws of our interest in objects, and the problem then becomes this: the determination of the laws according to which objects acquire, lose, or retain, interest or affective-volitional meaning.

It is at this point that the results of psychological analysis are, to my mind, most interesting and significant, just as it has been at this point that the psychology of feeling has previously been most inadequate. Into the details of this analysis and its results it is impossible to enter here. Ehrenfels, for instance, holds that such an analysis makes it possible to universalize the laws of Diminishing Value' and 'Marginal Utility' into a law of ' Grenzfrommen'(translatable, perhaps, as 'Marginal Appreciation')which is applicable to all objects of value. With this conclusion, however, I do not agree. It is of course certain that in the case of all those objects the value of which is conditioned by direct stimulation, dulling of sensitivity and satiety follow. It's Also true that in all cases of instrumental conceptual constructions, where the value is a utility-value, the function of instrumental judgments, and is conditioned by successive judgments of applicability, the law of marginal utility holds. But it is not clear that this is the law of all ideal constructions. It is precisely here, on what may be called the psychology of idealization and of ideals, that analysis is most inadequate. Without going into detail, which the limits of the present discussion will not admit, I can only state dogmatically, what I believe psychological analysis will not only justify, but also make conceivable, that in the processes of relative and instrumental valuation of objects certain ideal objects are constructed, the assumption of existence of which gives rise to intrinsic ethical and aesthetic values, which are not subject to these laws of relative value. At first complementary values, they become intrinsic ideals and 'practical absolutes,' in the sense that they constitute the permanent assumptions upon which all other judgments of value rest. In the case of the miser, the judgments of applicability of his money may pass over into an assumption of indefinite applicability. It thus acquires absolute intrinsic value. An ethical disposition, the value of which is first of all instrumental and relative, may become intrinsic and absolute, and the assumption of its absolute existence may give rise to personal values, aesthetic and ethical, which are practical absolutes. What may be the psychological explanation of these facts, it is not our purpose here to inquire. I believe, however, that even these phenomena may be explained in terms of empirical laws of feeling and will when these laws are properly formulated and interpreted.

The subjective personal meaning or value of an object is, however, quite a different thing from its objective, in the sense of social value. The relation of these two values of the same object is one of the most important of the axiological problems, and one of the first conditions of its solution is to discover the conditions and laws which determine objective value. Objective Values are in some sense conditioned by subjective values. Can we deduce the laws of objective from the laws of subjective value?

For economics the essential condition of objective value is exchange. Exchange objectifies subjective value through the interpolation of intermediate processes of judgment between the object and immediate enjoyment, the objective or exchange value being that which the individual must take into account in processes of subjective valuation. But, upon closer inspection, exchange is seen to be but a special case of social interaction and participation. Objective values have a wider range than economic values. Dispositions, ideas, ideals, arising first in individuals, acquire an objective reference and meaning through the fact that they are imitated, acknowledged, and shared. The fact that an ideal is or is not shared, that a disposition in an individual finds acceptance or opposition, modifies the individual's feeling of value in certain definite ways, and ultimately differentiates its objective reference and meaning from its subjective value. How is this objective value determined?

Economics has deduced the laws of objective exchange value from the laws of subjective value, conceiving the value in exchange to be the function of forces of supply and demand created by the operation of the laws of subjective value. The Question then arises, whether similar laws cannot be developed for non-economic, moral, social values. This I think is not only entirely within the range of possibility but is also in part accomplished. More than this, I think it is possible in this way to explain the variations of social moral values, as reflected in feelings of obligation and in judgments of praise and blame. Ehrenfels Argues for the extension of the principle of 'Marginal Utility' tote social, moral value of dispositions, and with his conclusions I am in entire accord, although not wholly with the psychological analysis upon which the inference rests. In my own view of the matter, the facts are briefly as follows. What we call objective social and moral values are participation-values, either immediate and intrinsic or instrumental. Dispositions and acts acquire this value as they are immediately or indirectly related to the participation of the individual in the ends of society. From The laws of Einfuhlung, of sympathetic participation of the individual, which are but special forms of the fundamental laws of feeling and will, the laws of social sympathy may be developed. Into the line of argument which underlies this view we cannot here enter. It will be sufficient to state the general conclusion that the degree of intensity of social sympathy is conditioned by the degree of its extension, and in such a manner as to lead to the inference that the social or moral value of a disposition is subject to a law of limiting value, which I have ventured to describe as the 'Law of Marginal Participation -Value.'

Such a conclusion evidently has an important bearing upon our conception of normal moral values. Underlying the normative law of 'universalization,' whatever its form, whether utilitarian or idealistic, whether in the Kantian form or in Fichte's Modification ("act so that the maxim of thy conduct may become for thee an eternal law"), is the assumption that the objective moral value is identical with the subjective and personal, and that moral values escape the laws inherent in the temporal character of values. But the difficulties in such a conception are not to be hidden. As soon as the logical concepts of universality and eternal law are taken out of the region of subjective and personal ideals, and are applied to empirical conduct, they necessarily develop problems of probability, and even possibility. In this case the values are no longer intrinsic, but instrumental. Universalization Of a given disposition, or even indefinite increase of the supply, must involve such a modification of the demand as in turn to modify the actual social and objective value of the disposition. To act as though the maxim of one's act were an eternal law, is to act as though frequency of repetition would have no effect upon its value, an assumption which experience does not allow us to make with respect to the objective values of any object. Whatever absolute ideal value such an assumption may have for the worth-experience of the individual, it cannot be taken as a normal measure of actual social values. Logical quantity has been translated into empirical terms, and in the empirical realm of actual values the demand for increase is conditioned precisely by lack of the desired disposition.


Advance in the direction of the understanding of the derivation of values, both individual and social, such as the general theory of value requires, and such as the new studies are in a fair way to furnish, should mean additional power to explain the more complex and developed phenomena of the value-judgment. Every advance in intensive analysis and comprehensive correlation should bring with it greater power of explanation. Here, of course, is to be found the test of the fruitfulness of the new studies. There are numerous points where this test may be applied, but for purposes of illustration it will suffice to take a single problem from the sphere of ethical values.

The region of ethical values, using the term 'ethical' in its widest extent, is characterized by the unique judgments of obligation and their correlated judgments of praise and blame. These Are the feelings of ideal value which are conceived to reflect absolute norms. Or else, when the non-empirical point of view is abandoned, the result has been at first a scepticism, such as Simmel gave expression to in his earlier studies, when he denied that our powers of analysis can penetrate to the causes of the difference between an obligation, intense but of narrow range, and one more extensive but correspondingly weak, and of the choice between the two.

Now there can be no doubt that our feelings of obligation and of praise and blame do vary in certain ways which, although the facts are clear enough, are difficult to explain. Thus our feelings of obligation toward any given act, and our attitudes of approval or disapproval of the act and its presupposed disposition, are by no means unequivocal and consistent. Though in every case apparently immediate and intrinsic, they nevertheless vary in different individuals, and at different times in the same individual. These variations may extend all the way from complete qualitative difference (as when personal obligations come into direct conflict with social obligations, or when I approve an act as the expression of a total personality, although, from the impersonal and social point of view, I disapprove it) to merely quantitative differences of intensity of obligation and approval or disapproval (as when the quality of the act is always the same, but the intensity of the demand varies). Apparently, different standards are presupposed. One fundamental difference has become so clear as to give rise to the term ' double standard.'Meinong has distinguished between a larger region of ethical and quasi-ethical values and a narrower region of moral values, regions which we may further characterize as representing the personal and the impersonal points of view.

The complexity of these phenomena of ethical judgment cannot be denied, and the failure of the older methods of ethics, with their explanation von oben, seems equally certain. But a sceptical conclusion in the premises seems premature. The introduction of quantitative analysis in this sphere, first attempted by Meinong, and made possible by his more intensive psychological analysis, has led to the formulation of certain empirical laws governing the variation of the intensity or emphasis of judgments of obligation, and of approval and disapproval, with variation in the quantity of the object, to the fixation of certain norms and thresholds of valuation, and of the limits within which the value-judgment moves. This method can, I think, be extended to include the analysis of the personal or quasi-ethical, the moral, and the legal judgments.

Into the details of such quantitative analysis we cannot go, but sufficient has been said to indicate that it is the first step explanation. The variation in these apparently intrinsic ethical values arises from the fact that the norms and thresholds represent demands or assumptions which are differently derived. They Are the assumptions or expectations which have survived the process of selection, in value-movements, individual and social. In the case of the difference between the personal and the impersonal attitude, it can be shown, I think, that the impersonal moral obligation represents the instrumental participation-value of a disposition, while the personal obligation represents the intrinsic ideal value of the object for the person, the value which the object (the disposition), when assumed to exist, to be realized, has for the individual as such. How these different norms are derived, is a problem for genetic worth-analysis; but, when thus derived, they suffice to explain the variations in explicit value judgments.


A few words in conclusion as to the bearing of these psychological studies on what is, after all, the most important problem of a general theory of value, that which has been described as the 'axiological' problem. The close relation is, in a general way, immediately apparent. We not only feel the value of an object, but we also reflectively evaluate the feeling, by raising the question of the validity of its presuppositions. Every feeling of value is a reality-feeling. Every object valued is, ipso facto, presumed, judged, or assumed to exist, even in the case of ideal values. Clearly another point of view than the phenomenological, psychological, is here involved, a point of view which requires not only to be clearly defined, but also to be properly related to the psychological.

The chief problem for axiology, as for epistemology, is bound up with the distinction between subjective and objective, a distinction made use of in dealing with judgments of value as well as judgments of knowledge. We recognize values as in some way independent of individual acknowledgment, for between the subject and the object there are relations of feeling and will, felt as demands and obligations, just as inviolable as those of the sense-impressions imposed upon us from without. Between the subjectively desired and the objectively desirable in ethics, between subjective utility and sacrifice and objective value and price in economic reckoning, between the subjectively effective and the objectively beautiful in art, in all these cases there is a difference for feeling so potent that in naive and unreflective experience the feelings with such objectivity of reference are spoken of as predicates of the objects themselves.

For reflection, however, there is a difference between the meaning of this distinction in the sphere of values and that which it has in the sphere of truth, and it is at this point that the specific character of the axiological problem appears. In the theory of knowledge the dispute still rages (and is especially fierce at the present time) as to whether there is an objectivity which transcends all subjective processes, whether qualities inherent in the thing apart from experience. For the theory of value, the problem is simplified. All values are in one sense subjective; all are founded in some process. But we recognize that our concept of subjectivity must make room for a kind of objectivity, that the feelings or desires determined in one process may exercise a control over feelings and desires determined by other processes, and that this control gives them a form of objectivity.

When we seek a name for this kind of objectivity, we find one at hand in the concept of the norm and of normative judgments. The practical significance of an objective value is that it forms the norm for subjective feelings of value, that it determines subjective feeling in some way. The unique character of this relation appears upon closer examination. The acknowledgment of the normal exchange-value, the price of an object, is the condition of its further utilization by the individual; the acknowledgment of permanently desirable dispositions is the condition of the realization of certain subjective ethical values; the acknowledgment of objective beauty is the condition of permanent aesthetic satisfactions. Still more apparent is the relation in the case of the extreme objectifications of religion. Ideals of a supernatural character are the product, phenomenologically speaking, of individual and racial appreciative constructions; but the assumption or postulates of their existence is the presupposition of the realization of certain subjective feelings of value, such as reverence and inner peace. In general, the norm is an assumption or postulate of existence, representing the permanent aspects of desire, underlying changeable feelings and judgments. Its function is the control of appreciation, of the subjective worth-judgment.

When this unique character of normative objectivity is recognized, the problem of axiology begins to define itself. In the first place, there is clearly a distinction, at least relative, between normative and factual objectivity. The question whether an object, the assumption of the reality of which constitutes a control of subjective appreciation, has an existence apart from processes of valuation, individual and social, is for the ontological standpoint a meaningless question. It is also apparent that,in the last analysis, the question of the reality of a value apart from individuals is equally meaningless. Objective values, in the social-sense, can be actualized only in individuals. Until this actualized, they are, at most, merely permanent possibilities of value. We may then go further, and say that there is also a relative distinction between normative objectivity and factual, in the sense of actual, social values. While related, they are by no means identical. Such factual objectivity is always normative insofar as the demand in which the value of the object is founded must enter as a conscious presupposition of actualization of values in the individual. Normal 'exchange' and normal 'moral values alike have both factual and normative objectivity; but this does not exhaust the field of normative objectivity. There Are personal ideals, the normative character of which does not depend upon the belief in their present existence, or even ultimate in society. They are assumptions, postulates, the primary significance of which consists in the fact that they are the necessary presuppositions of subjective value in the individual. Developed though they may have been in social interaction, and retaining, as they undoubtedly do, a secondary instrumental value for society, for social participation, they are, nevertheless, now primarily significant as conditions of the continuity of the individual and personal value series. In contrast to the preceding instrumental norms, they are intrinsic norms, which undoubtedly have metaphysical reality, in that they have meaning, but not necessarily factual existence. Normative objectivity of both types consists, therefore, in the acknowledgment of a presupposition of subjective value, and is ultimately founded in subjective process.

Now the distinction between subjective and objective values being what it has been shown to be, it is clear that the question of the validity of any such distinction is bound up wholly with the question whether the objectivity postulated fulfills its function as the necessary presupposition of the continuity of valuation, in its two aspects of acquirement and conservation of value. Other questions may, indeed, be raised, as, for instance, whether the reality which an object of value thus has is equivalent to existence apart from subjective process; but they are, as we have seen, not axiological. We cannot answer the question of the validity, and therefore ultimately the truth or falsity, of the cognitive presuppositions of a feeling of value without reference to this criterion.

When, however, the problem of axiology is stated in this way, it is also immediately apparent that a certain definite relation to psychological facts is involved. For immediate experience, this normative objectivity appears in an immediate appreciation of value, which has, as its cognitive presuppositions, certain assumptions postulates; but for reflection these very assumptions show themselves to be the product of a selective genetic differentiation of our desires (through arrest, effort, and consequent readaptations and reconstructions), in which some of our desires have developed into permanent and objective demands. Out of the general level of immediate feeling has emerged a development which has its conclusion in a new kind of objectivity, reality. It is clear that all values, whether subjective or objective, being founded in some process, the ultimate question as to their validity is whether they are well founded or not. It is also clear that whether they are well founded or not depends upon their conformity to certain ultimate laws. Every assertion of a value implies at the same time an assertion of its conformity to the laws of feeling and will. The same laws which determine the genesis and survival of objects of value must at the same time determine their normative objectivity.

We cannot, then, avoid the conclusion, that the bearing of the present studies of the processes and laws of valuation upon the ontological problem is direct and immediate, and that they must involve ultimately a reconstruction of such normative laws as are found to be in contradiction with the fundamental capacities of feeling and will. The situation may be stated in yet another way. Whatever may be the abstract formulations for the normative science of the norms of validity, they cannot be anything else than the development in other terms, and for other purposes, of what, from another point of view, we call psychological laws. We may well believe that psychological description is not all there is to a theory of value, but it certainly is not irrelevant to the normative problem. It is at least necessary that the assumptions, postulates, embodied in these norms, shall be psychologically possible; that "they shall be in harmony with the general laws of the conscious life and only special and detailed development of what lies in these laws."

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All