Value Theory

The study of value, called axiology, has three main branches: ethics, concerning the morally good; political theory, concerning the social good; and aesthetics, concerning the beautiful, or taste. One might perhaps add another branch, pragmatics, which concerns the utilitarian good or instrumental efficiency of means toward some specific end. Modern value theory may be said to have arisen with modern science, which distinguished between fact and value. For Plato, there was no discord between the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. If the Good seemed to take precedence over the True or the Beautiful, it was because it was impossible to conceive the highest perfection as inactive and heartless, because the Good added the dimension of action to that of contemplation. In contrast, modern science separated morals, aesthetics, and science, banning from the True all qualities to which decisive (i.e., intersubjectively verifiable) empirical observation was not applicable and relegating them to the domain of value. Thus was human value distinguished from natural fact, and subjectivity from objectivity. This distinction between fact and value, between qualities that by general consensus inhere in objects themselves and our preference for one object over another, has been challenged by recent critical theory.

The historical road to contemporary value theory in literary studies may be mapped upon an axiological continuum. Extrapolating from a Platonic notion of the objectivity of the Beautiful on one pole, we might continue through the more subjectivist theories of the great Enlightenment axiologists and finally conclude with our contemporary notions of value-contingency, in which all dualistic axiologies (both subjectivist and objectivist) are rejected and in which “contingency” replaces universality and naturalness. For Plato, beauty inhered in the object, was a fact of the object’s existence, insofar as it reflected the objective Form of the Beautiful (Phaedo 100c ff., Symposium 211 ff.). By the time of David Hume ‘s essay “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757) the distinction between science and value had commenced. Beginning with the “obvious” observation of “the great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world” (226), the empiricist Hume recognizes diversity in matters of taste. Yet because he is also committed to a simplistic deterministic account of human psychology, his recognition of the relativity of value is checked and compromised. The psychological argument is, briefly, that certain “forms or qualities” of objects naturally produce feelings of pleasure or displeasure in us by virtue of our physiological constitution, and these feelings are the foundation of all general aesthetics (233). Consequently, for Hume, there are universal “objective” forms of beauty that are rarely recognized or appreciated due to what he calls “diversity in the internal frame or external situation” (244)—or contingent personal and social factors. These latter explain the varieties of taste that, as Hume says, are “too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation.”

In the Critique of Judgment (1790), Immanuel Kant is at pains to distinguish objective judgments, which are predicated upon objects (the table is brown), and subjective judgments, which are predicated upon subjective agreeableness (the wine is pleasant, it gives me pleasure, I like it), from judgments of taste, which are neither objective nor subjective in these senses but are rather both subjective and objective. They are subjective in that they express experiences I have alone, and they are objective in that everyone will agree with them as if they concerned objective properties of things. The experience I have, which is the “free play” of imagination synthesizing perception and concept (the phenomenology of which we find in book i, “The Analytic”), however, is quite independent of our “demand” for universal assent to our liking, which Kant explicates in “The Dialectic.” There he brings the phenomenological experience into alignment with his larger, logical project. We bestow upon our subjective experience the universality that accords it objective status by establishing the beautiful as the symbol of the morally good. It may be said that what has dropped out of aesthetics in the 200 years since Kant is the perceived connection between the beautiful and the morally good.

But Kantian aesthetics has not declined without a trace. By subsuming the beautiful to the morally good, Kant made it clear that humankind had no pressing need for the beautiful: the rational progress of history could occur without it. From Friedrich Schiller through the present, Kant’s notion of “free play” has been applied beyond the aesthetic arena proper, as a criticism, as it were, of life under modern conditions. Karl Marx and Marxists have echoed, more or less loudly, Schiller’s insistence upon the need for the aesthetic “free play of the imagination” as an objective condition of the rational progress of history (the liberation of all human potentialities from the roles and hierarchies of modern life) and as a corrective to the instrumentalization and rationalization of the human faculties under modernity. All such critics have correspondingly resisted the division or rationalization of knowledge in the separation of fact and value, or science, politics, and art. In addition to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The German Ideology (1846) and Leon Trotsky in “Revolutionary and Socialist Art” (1924), one might refer to the European Decadents of the late nineteenth century (e.g., Oscar Wilde’s “Soul of Man under Socialism,” 1892), the Frankfurt School of the early twentieth, and certain tendencies in critical legal studies and cultural studies . In Michel Foucault ‘s last interviews he considered a less politicized and more individualistic (rather than socialist) version of “the idea of a self which had to be created as a work of art” (362-70).

With contemporary critical theory in the Left or progressive tradition, it is necessary to introduce Friedrich Nietzsche , who in The Genealogy of Morals (1887) and elsewhere revealed value as a con, a tool of domination of some over others, and urged a “transvaluation of values” in the name of personal liberation. The fork that divides two major developments in contemporary value theory—the progressive branch, which includes cultural studies, critiques of science and objectivity in feminist theory, Marxism, critical legal studies, and so on, and the skeptical branch, which includes value relativists and the so-called neopragmatists—was present in Nietzsche’s critique of domination and his radical perspectivism or skepticism.

An influential tendency within the progressive critique of value is the critical legal studies movement (CLS). Although it is often confused with the recent area of study called “law and literature,” which is concerned with epistemological and interpretive problems common to both legal texts (constitutions, statutes, judicial decisions) and literary texts, the group of legal scholars that first met in 1977 under the rubric CLS were driven not by philosophical hermeneutics but by the perception, historically shared by both political economists and Marxists, that legal theory had come to justify the status quo. Attacking the dualistic foundations of liberal thought, distinctions between the state of nature and the social order, subjective and objective, private and public, CLS saw no distinctive mode of legal reasoning that could be contrasted with political dialogue and accordingly asserted that law was politics. CLS’s first task was to criticize objectivist legal theory for this rationalization of inequality, which it did in a form called “trashing” or “delegitimating,” what in literary studies is called Deconstruction. This entailed a full-scale critique of liberal economic and political theory, which occupied the first decade of the movement. CLS’s second task, uncompleted at the beginning of the 1990s, was to propose something else, to transform the institution of the law.

In aesthetics, CLS’s attack upon dualistic formulations of fact and value, subjective and objective, private and public, has taken a more progressive turn than similar attacks in “law and literature.” An important and prolific, if idiosyncratic, CLS writer, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, has proposed a reintegration of the extraordinary or art and the everyday. He urges us to transform the modern realms of private life and ideals—art, romantic love, religion—from their mystifications under current conditions into tools for the enrichment of ordinary life, so that imaginative literature, for example, would not be the realm of artistic alienation (say no to society) and sublimation (a dream of freedom, autonomy, personality) but rather a window upon possibilities of other social relations, a view that has much in common with Schiller’s liberation of human potentialities as derived from Kantian “free play.” “The extraordinary,” Unger writes,

makes it possible to grasp the ideal, and to contrast it with one’s ordinary experience of the world. In this sense, the extraordinary is the starting point for the critique and transformation of social life. It poses the task of actualizing in the world of commonplace things and situations what has already been encountered as a divine liberation from the everyday…. In the course of this actualization both the extraordinary and the everyday must be changed. The final and most important change would be the disappearance of the distinction between them. (Knowledge 232)

Yet Unger’s awareness of the double-edged value of art— its alternate function as haven or escape—also has much in common with Nietzsche’s critique of value as domination, or a fraud.

The extraordinary representation of the ideal in art, religion, and love has a two-faced significance for everyday life. On the one hand, it can offer the self temporary refuge. In this sense, the extraordinary is a mystification, the aroma that sweetens the air of the established order. Its very availability makes the absence of the ideal from everyday life seem tolerable and even necessary. Because the sacred, art, and love are separated out from banal events, everything in the ordinary world can become all the more relentlessly profane, prosaic, and self-regarding. (232)

In other forms than Unger’s, the critical practice of CLS, lying somewhere between the progressive project and that of the pragmatists, to whom we shall presently turn, is allied with cultural studies. Like CLS, in its assertion that law is politics (rather than “above” or “outside of” politics), cultural studies considers that the production of the literary canon, the consumption, or meaning, of imaginative literature, and the status of the literary community’s cultural capital are within the realm of politics. Like CLS, in its various “trashings,” cultural studies has deconstructed such knots of ideology in literature as subjective/objective, self/other, public/private, and extraordinary/ everyday; and like CLS, it has argued that deconstruction that merely works on the status quo is ultimately a conservative practice. Like CLS, in its positive program to transform the law by reintegrating it with everyday life, cultural studies wants to reintegrate the extraordinary (called art or literature) with the ordinary (called popular culture). Like CLS, in its critique of the liberal subject as autonomous agent in pursuit of selfinterest derived from the social position of dominant males, cultural studies reevaluates subjectivity and situates the “literary subject” in relation to other past, present, and even future forms as a product of culture rather than nature. Like CLS, in its assault on hierarchy, cultural studies replaces Culture with a capital C as an elite cultural capital with a pluralistic, diverse conception of cultures.

These last goals bring us to the other major branch of contemporary value theory, to those who see progressive aesthetics as ultimately misguided, oppressive, or insufficiently pluralistic. These are the contemporary skeptics or value relativists or, in a weaker form, pragmatists. Following upon structuralist and poststructuralist critiques, this branch denies that value, including literary value, is a property of objects, subjects, or psychological processes between subjects and objects, arguing that it is instead a product of the dynamics of cultural systems. Although his own work is often more overtly political (“overtly” because relativists would deny the distinction between political and other practices), value relativists and pragmatists often cite Pierre Bourdieu to illustrate the contingency of value.

In contradistinction to Kant, Bourdieu considers that aesthetics has functioned as a negative force in human progress. Accusing the French educational establishment of merely reproducing bourgeois ideology and therefore reproducing the status quo, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979, trans., 1984) Bourdieu argues that aesthetic “distinction,” or taste, is solely a product of education, family, and the social trajectories of economic class and status. He has traced the establishment’s aesthetic preference for form and style to its distance from economic necessity and the bluecollar taste for content (“realism”) and moral or recreative agreeableness to engagement with material conditions. For Bourdieu, who provides a sociology of the institution of the art world, rather than the symbol of a freedom that can be (in Kant, ought to be) shared universally, taste has come to be institutionalized in a manner that excludes and oppresses. The “disinterested” aesthetic no longer refers to freedom but is reduced to a class-based preference for form. Contrasting Bourdieu, whom she calls “postaxiological,” with earlier axiologists, Barbara Herrnstein Smith writes,

He emphasizes that, because these learned patterns of cultural consumption tend to be experienced as internal preferences and interpreted as evidence of different natural inclinations and competences, taste also functions to legitimate the power of the socially dominant. Specifically, the cultural objects and practices favored by the dominant classes … are legitimated as intrinsically superior by the normative institutions controlled by those very classes; at the same time, the tastes of the dominant for those objects and practices areinterpreted as evidence of their own natural superiority and cultural enlightenment and thus also their right to social and cultural power. Moreover, this doubly legitimating interpretation is accepted and reproduced not only by those who benefit most directly from it but by everyone, including those whose subordination it implicitly justifies. (76)

Such analyses of value as institutional hegemony, whether called postaxiological or post-Nietzschean, make up the greater efforts of the new value relativists, whose project is to question and critique objectivist, or dualistic, thought. Thus, Smith sees literary value as neither objective (a property of objects and commanding universal assent) nor subjective (personally whimsical, locked into the consciousness of individual subjects, or without interest or value to others) but rather as a changing function of multiple contingent variables. For her, when we make an explicit judgment of a literary work, we articulate an estimate of how well the work will serve certain implicitly defined functions for a specific implicitly defined audience that is conceived of as experiencing the work under certain implicitly defined conditions. The project of cultural criticism, then, is not some universalist progressive trajectory but the examination of how literary values are formed, sustained, and exercised.

Similarly, in his debates with legal and “law and literature” theorists, Stanley Fish hoped to redirect the inquiry into interpretation away from the self-conscious deliberation of the individual judge or critic and toward the battlefield of institutional practice, thus revealing the politics of legal or literary interpretation and, again, destabilizing the fact/value dichotomy. Fish contends that arguments based upon higher moral principles or theories, or even rationality per se, are the means by which institutional actors ply their trade and advance their interests. Each institutional faction will try to establish its own governing rules as the supposedly neutral principles that constrain interpretation. Fish insists that there are “no principles above interest, only principled interests” (“Interpretation” 501). Heretofore feminist and cultural critics have differed with Fish upon his notion of interpretive community, which, they claim, is typically based upon some monolithic or idealized version of “the profession” and is insufficiently differentiated or pluralistic. It may be said that Fish has had little to say about the ways in which institutional practices in law or literature change. Here, feminist and cultural critics have been most sensitive to the subtle articulations of pluralism, difference, and institutional change.

There are, then, three main areas of debate in the academy on the question of literary value. The first area centers on the humanistic attempt, following Mattew Arnold , to use literature to supply transcendent values to unify a pluralistic culture, the crudest recent attempt being Allan Bloom’s. The second involves the leftist attempts to promote progressive culture through the traditions of critical theory and expansion of the curriculum beyond national, gendered, and generic boundaries. The third includes analyses of the institutionalization of literary value, as in Herbert Lindenberger’s historical account of the “Great Books” or “Western Culture” courses in U.S. undergraduate curricula or Fish’s long-standing preoccupation with interpretive communities, especially professional communities, that constrain interpretation by “deep” standards of rationality that determine such issues as what constitutes a good argument or what counts as evidence.

Further Reading
Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (1978); Matthew Arnold, Lectures and Essays in Criticism: The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, vol. 4 (ed. R. H. Super, 1962); Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction: Critique sociale du jugement (1979, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, 1984); Drucilla Cornell, “The Poststructuralist Challenge to the Ideal of Community,” Cardozo Law Review 8 (1987), “Toward a Modern/Postmodern Reconstruction of Ethics,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 133 (1985); Louis Dumont, “On Value, Modern and Nonmodern,” Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective (1986); Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989), “Interpretation and the Pluralist Vision,” Texas Law Review 60 (1982); Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader (ed. Paul Rabinow, 1984); Regenia Gagnier, Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832-1920 (1991); Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (1986); Harvard Law Review 99 (1986, special issue on CLS); David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (ed. Eugene F. Miller, 1963); David Kairys, The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique (1982); Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (1790, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, 1987); Mark Kelman, A Guide to Critical Legal Studies (1987); Duncan Kennedy and Karl E. Klare, “A Bibliography of Critical Legal Studies,” Yale Law Journal 94 (1984); Herbert Lindenberger, “On the Sacrality of Reading Lists: The Western Culture Debate at StanfordUniversity/’ Comparative Criticism 2 (1989); Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964); Friedrich Nietzsche, Das Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik and Zur Genealogie der Moral (1871 and 1887, The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, trans. F. Golffing, 1956); Plato, The Collected Dialogues including the Letters (ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, 1973); Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989); Friedrich Schiller, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (1795, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters, trans. Reginald Snell, 1965); Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (1988); Stanford Law Review 36 (1984, special issues on CLS); Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (trans. Rose Strunsky, 1975); Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Knowledge and Politics (1976), Passion: An Essay on Personality (1984); Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” The Artist as Critic: The Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde (ed. Richard Ellmann, 1969).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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