Values’ Dual Modality and Functionality in Social Transmission: Part 1

The ubiquity of the term “values” in social, political and cultural discourse, not to mention its theoretical prevalence in the social sciences and economics, might lull those encountering the word casually into thinking that even if they were hard-pressed personally to define what is meant by the term, there must be an agreed definition of something so commonly used and an evidentiary basis for its use. Value theory, however, has been dogged from its inception by lack of any agreement about its fundamentals.

This essay takes as its starting point the position that, although the nature of values has been explored extensively in the philosophy of value, progress has stalled precisely because value concerns have come to be seen as an extension of epistemology, and have suffered what Kant determined was the fate of all pure reasoning, that of resulting in irreconcilable paradox, or antinomies. I would contend this impasse can only be broken by extending the debate about the nature of values into social theory, by positing values as transmissible entities, which could lead on to a potentially testable hypothesis, although the ambition here is more limited: to argue that values’ existence is inseparable from institutional structure and discourses and that their nature is revealed in a phenomenological-semiotic analysis of values and similar social artefacts.

Accordingly, this essay is divided into two parts. In the first a survey of significant contributions to value theory is viewed through the perspective of the antinomies that have emerged. In the second part a phenomenological-semiotic theory of values that addresses the issues raised in the first part and looks at both the nature of values and their function in social transmission is developed.

Part 1: Antinomies within the Philosophy of Value

In this first part of the essay the intention is to lay some preliminary groundwork in exploring the nature of values, through a survey of the problematic areas within the theory of value and sketching in outline a view of values that seeks to address those issues. These areas of dispute can be reduced to a core of six, closely interlinked antinomies: existence/non-existence; subjectivity/objectivity; singularity/plurality; absoluteness/relativity; interiority/exteriority; and values/disvalues. They will be dealt with under separate sections, though inevitably there is a degree of overlap.


The most fundamental problem in approaching the idea of value transmission is the nature of values themselves, not only what they are, but whether, in fact, they have any meaningful existence. For empiricist scientists (whether hard, social or behavioural) and philosophers some major hurdles to their acceptance are their imperceptibility, their resistance to meaningful measurement, and the inability to predict behaviour from them (Hechter, 1993). While few, if any, state outright that there are no such things as values, they are ontologically downgraded by being cast as secondary, derivative phenomena, often not worthy of the attention of serious minds or serious research. Karl Popper (2005, pp.225-6) for example states:

[F]ew scientists, and few philosophers with scientific training, care to write about values. The reason is simply that so much of the talk about values is just hot air. So many of us fear that we too would only produce hot air or, if not that, something not easily distinguished from it…. I shall therefore say nothing more than that values emerge together with problems; that values could not exist without problems; and that neither values nor problems can be derived or otherwise obtained from facts, though they often pertain to facts or are connected with facts.

Popper repeats the dictum, common since first asserted by Hume, that values cannot be derived from facts (usually stated in the form ‘an ‘ought’ cannot be derived from an ‘is’’). This is an idea that has been challenged by, for example Rand (1964), MacIntyre (1981) and Searle (1995), though their reformulations of the problem have been shown to miss the point; they (mis)understood Hume to have declared that facts and values have nothing to do with each other. Popper, after Hume, is thinking of strict logical entailment, but he does state that values ‘often pertain to facts or are connected with facts’; in real life factual and value judgements are indiscriminately mixed.

For philosophers of a metaphysical bent, the issue of imperceptibility has been less problematic. Taking their cue from the Platonic tradition of positing a transcendent world of forms, philosophers such as Munsterberg (1909) and the Baden school of neo-Kantians, that included Rickert (1921), Windelband (1901) and Troeltsch (1931), were able to argue for the existence of a realm of absolute values. For example, Rickert addressed the problematic dichotomy of subject and object, bequeathed by Cartesian dualism, by placing them both in the category of the ‘the real’ and then positing the category of ‘the non-real’ which ‘when interpreted positively’ was understood to include value, meaning and significance (Rickert, 1921, pp.102-3). Value is immanent in every cognition, but is ultimately as independent of mental processes as it is of the objects of cognition. Values cannot even be said to exist; instead, they have validity (Rickert, 1928, p.195), which is the only and absolute measure of all values.

I consider both the positivist and metaphysical views to be flawed. From a phenomenological perspective anything which consciousness intends, that is, anything of which we are aware, such as beliefs and values, has a mode of existence, to the extent that it can have a profound effect on an individual’s life. That does not, of course, address the positivist/empiricist point Hechter (1993) makes concerning the intangibility of values, a point that I take seriously and will answer as this argument develops. Rickert, though, seems to be sidestepping the problematic issue of existence by making the same case for values that is frequently made for mathematics by mathematicians with platonic tendencies. However, in asserting that values do not exist but ‘have’ validity is surely a categorical mistake, as for anything to possess a quality in any meaningful sense it must be thought to be real. Moreover, it ignores the issue of transmissibility: just as mathematics, whatever its ontological status, is communicated through a semiotics, values are likewise communicated in daily and institutional life though a range of actions, images and words.


Since Descartes re-oriented philosophy away from ontological to epistemological concerns, there has been, according to Kolakowski (1988), a dilemma at the heart of western thought: the incommensurability of subjectivity with objectivity. Though there have been attempts within philosophy to bridge that divide, schools of thought have tended to gravitate to one side or the other. That is no less true in the philosophy of value, where thinkers have tended to emphasise either the subjective or objective aspect.

As a field in its own right, the focus on issues of value, separate from ethics, aesthetics, theology, economy and sociology, only appeared towards the end of the nineteenth century in Germany, in the writings of Lotze, von Ehrenfels, Meinong and Brentano. These thinkers gave birth to the ‘Psychological School’ of value theory, so-called due to their attribution of aspects of subjectivity to be the foundation of the experience of value: ‘right-loving’ and ‘right-hating’ in the case of Lotze; ‘right-desiring’ for von Ehrenfels and ‘right-feeling’ according to Meinong (Werkmeister, 1970). By the early part of the twentieth century different schools of value theory were emerging. Urban (1917) in the United States, and Scheler (1973) and Hartmann (1932) in Germany were developing theories that followed the platonic concept of values as objective features of a non-temporal realm. The neo-Kantian school, including Munsterberg, believed values to be objective universally valid judgements.

In the 1920s and 1930s, in an attempt to introduce some order into the profusion of approaches, and in the belief that a ‘scientific’ basis for value theory could be found, two American philosophers – Ralph Barton Perry and John Dewey – attempted to develop a General Theory of Value. Perry, in particular, sought to correlate the subjective aspects of human psychology with objective reality with his notion of ‘interest’:

It is characteristic of living mind to be for some things and against others….It is to this all-pervasive characteristic of the motor-affective life, this state, act, attitude or disposition of favor or disfavor, to which we propose to give the name of ‘interest’….That which is an object of interest is eo ipse invested with value. Any object, whatever it be, acquires value when any interest, whatever it be, is taken in it. (Perry, 1926, pp.115-116)

For Perry the key concept was ‘value’, a property inhering in things themselves (sometimes referred to as a tertiary property), rather than ‘values’, the existence of which many philosophers and scientists of a positivistic bent have persisted in doubting. This was a view that Perry considered he shared with Dewey, whom he cites in support: ‘[T]he relation of judgement or reflection to things having value is as direct and integral as that of liking’ (Dewey, 1923, pp.617-8, cited in Perry, p.123), although Dewey’s basic category was ‘valuation’ rather than value as such. Rand (1967), in a similar vein, put forward a theory known as value objectivism, which stated that values arise from the interaction between our subjective desires and objective conditions; values are objective in the sense that they are rooted in the properties of the object valued, to be discovered and appreciated by the individual, and not in any belief held about the object. Rand’s view is more oriented to an economic view of value, though it is rooted in philosophical arguments. Perry, Dewey and Rand have developed theories in which a psychological response or relationship to an object allows an objective quality of ‘value’ to be discovered or created. Though this relates a universal experience of the valuable, whether economic or personal, such an experience is not something transmissible, and corresponds only to what I term the appreciative aspect of value.

There are, however, interpretations of the objectivity of value that go further than positing a quality that is uncovered in relation to consciousness. The notion of intrinsic value is shared among several ideological stances, notably those with Catholic leanings (derived from Thomistic theology) and the more radical environmentalists who advocate a pristine nature purged of human despoliation. Some philosophers, though not necessarily sharing the above-mentioned convictions, have argued for value as a tertiary property of objects not requiring the presence of consciousness. Rescher (2005, p.25), for example asks:

Does value demand an actual valuer? Does having value require being valued? By no means! Value requires an actual valuer no more than length requires an actual measurer… [Something] has value not because it is valued, but because it deserves to be valued – because rational beings who contemplate it…do so with appropriation and prioritive response. Such appreciators do not create that value but rather appreciate it. Subjectivity does not come into it.

I would point out the implicit contradiction in the concept of intrinsic value: in positing that the value of human being or the natural environment is objectively and indisputably inhering in the object, a value judgement has already been posited. There is no evidence that such a tertiary property of things exists. Belief in the existence of intrinsic value is just that, a belief; moreover, it is a belief that can under some circumstances justify intolerance, even the seemingly benign belief in the intrinsic value of human beings. I prefer a subjectivist account of values, as I largely share the view of the psychological school that values are characterised by their interiority; I differ, though, on the nature of that interiority and also would argue that values that are constituted solely by their interiority are incapable of transmission.


One of the greatest sources of confusion in value theory has been the actual object of investigation, whether it is the singularity ‘value’ or the plurality ‘values’. This has far-reaching consequences, for as discussed above it entails whether the phenomenon of value/valuing is one that inheres in the properties of objects or in the properties of minds. The reason for this confusion lies ultimately in the fact that there are two sources for value theory, economics and ethics. A theory of economic value is found in Aristotle’s Politics which influenced the views of Aquinas’ just price (Zuniga, 1997) and Marx’s labour theory of value (Johnson, 1939). On the other hand, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics laid out the idea of the virtues, which also influenced and combined with ideas of Christian piety in Aquinas. While the genealogy of these influences is not entirely clear on the subsequent development of value theory, its pioneers in the nineteenth century sought an underlying unity to the phenomenon of valuation which, until then, only economic theory had attained to any significant degree.

Brentano, for example, first proposed the idea of the intentionality of consciousness, that consciousness is always a consciousness of something, whether that be the perception of a physical object or of a mental image. He argued that just as awareness of the act of perception is itself part of the experience of perception, so an awareness of one’s emotional response to something was also part of the emotional experience. Like Hume, whom he had read extensively (Werkmeister, 1970), Brentano believed the basis of valuation was the emotional responses of approval and disapproval. However, he went further than Hume in asserting that there was a correlate of this act of appreciation, which was whether the approval or disapproval was justified. He spoke of ‘right loving’ and ‘right hating’ as the basis of value. Ultimately, this rested on a view of humans as having a rational and spiritual nature and an animal nature, and of the desires emanating from those natures. Following Brentano, Meinong also took a psychological stance on the question of value. However, he diverged from Brentano in believing that all valuation is based on feeling, without regard to justification. Forestalling the obvious objection that such a ‘value-feeling’ would be entirely solipsistic, Meinong anchors this feeling in the experience of others’ pleasures and pains and in reflection upon that experience.

For both Brentano and Meinong desire was recognised as a factor in valuation but its significance was played down (Werkmeister, 1970). For von Ehrenfels, however, desire became foundational; the ascription of ‘value (or disvalue) to a real or to a merely imagined object’ is made ‘insofar as the appropriate concrete and vivid presentation of its realization causes an enhancement (or diminution) of happiness as compared with the presentation of its non-realization’ (von Ehrenfels, 1893, p.116), in which desire is equated with a form of ‘presentation’ in which relative degrees of happiness are experienced (Werkmeister, 1970, pp.87-88). Brentano, Meinong and von Ehrenfels all in their own way recognised the inherent danger of a concept of value based entirely upon an individual’s experience of value, and attempted to introduce a more objective correlate to this experience. This is an important insight which has guided the development of a concept of value in this essay.

Heyde made a fundamental distinction in value theory between ‘value’ as a property universal to all experiences of valuation and ‘values’ as a term for all those things that are valued. He referred to these as value1 and value2 respectively, and asserted that the former is foundational. Heyde did not claim that value in this sense is a property of things, but a property of a relationship, that between things and consciousness (Werkmeister, 1970, p.140). However, he rejects the views of the psychological school that mental acts are the foundation of value and that we merely ‘ascribe’ value to objects; to value something, to have a value-feeling in connection with a particular object is to discover the value that it already has. Valuation, then, is a form of knowledge which rightfully forms part of epistemology, not psychology (ibid, pp.145-146). Therefore, Heyde offers up an account of value that corresponds with what was later to be called value objectivism, examples of which I have already considered.

If an extended analysis of the semantic and syntactic distinctions within the language of value, i.e. those words that constitute a ‘family’ around the base term ‘value’, is carried out, it is possible to reduce this profusion to just four basic categories of meaning: two nouns forms, ‘value’ (uncountable) and ‘value’ (countable); and two verbal forms, ‘value’ (appreciate) and ‘value’ (evaluate) and their various syntactic variations. These constitute two subjective-objective pairings, which I have termed the appreciative system and the evaluative system. The appreciative system is similar to the perspective offered by forms of value objectivism in that we value (appreciate) what is valuable (has value). The evaluative system is the basis of judgement, in which we value (evaluate) based on a range of values, those values dependent on the perspective (social/professional/moral) from which the matter is being viewed. In part 2 of this essay I will argue that these two systems constitute part of a single concept of values as transmissible entities.


In value theory theories of absolute values are attributed to Munsterberg and Rickert. Munsterberg (1909) proceeded to absolute values through a three stage process. To begin with, he affirmed that the values that philosophy is concerned with are absolute values and not values based on desires, which are relative values. This even extends to values grounded in the common good, for they are part of the hierarchy of relative values and not transcendent of desires. Next, Munsterberg asserted that in contemplating the sense of ‘obligation’ in every sphere of life, absolute values appropriate to that form of life, such as truth, beauty and goodness, are encountered (1909, p.39). Finally, he declared, in order to bring coherence to the multiplicity of such values, there is one act that must be undertaken, which is ‘the self-assertion of the world’ (ibid, p.87) transcending mere subjective experience.

It is easy to denigrate this type of thinking as pure metaphysics, having no relationship to the real world of our everyday concerns. It is less easy to dismiss, however, the human hankering for certainty which underlies the idea of absolute values. There is an unceasing tension between the knowledge of the contingency of our ideas and beliefs and the conviction with which we hold them that conspires to drive forward human social evolution while being, at the same time, elusive to satisfactory explanation.

Rickert’s views, which have already been considered above, placed values, separately from mere valuations, in a realm of validity separate from the realm of being, so that even an undiscovered value would still have validity (Mila, 2005). Nevertheless, values as unreal can only be manifest in real objects and social situations, and discovered through a consideration of history and culture (Rickert, 1910, cited in Mila, 2005, p.114)

By something of a seeming paradox, then, Rickert’s view of values as non-real absolutes found their way into the social sciences through the writings of one of the founders of sociology, Max Weber. Paradoxical, that is, because the social sciences are characterised by value objectivity or value neutrality, which is often interpreted as meaning that they advocate value relativism. As values are considered as structural or functional aspects of the social system, there is a tendency to view values as interchangeable. Weber was particularly influenced by the neo-Kantian element of Rickert’s theories that advocated ‘value-freedom’ (Brun, 2007, p.8), which was utilised as a basis for his methodological commitment to objectivity in the social sciences (Brun, 2007), in an attempt to bolster the prestige of the social sciences to a level comparable to that of the physical sciences. Weber, though, was probably not a relativist, ontologically speaking, as maintained by Strauss (1953, cited in Brun, 2007, p.18) and MacIntyre (1981); the commitment to scientific objectivity methodologically is compatible with a personal commitment to absolute values as ‘goals’ within Weber’s view of sociology as the study of ‘social action’ (Brun, 2007, p.15).

Ciaffa (1998, pp.13-14) argues that the dispute over value-freedom is actually two logically distinct arguments: a ‘methodological’ argument that the social sciences should be objectively scientific and free of normative concerns, and a ‘practical’ argument that the social sciences not be used to bolster particular political or moral claims. Critical social theorists such as Habermas (1973) take issue with the concept of a value-free social science; they contend that social realities are essentially interpreted and value-laden unlike physical realities and that Weber is imposing a technical framework on society under the influence of a positivist ideology. This is slightly disingenuous; it does not follow, after all, from the observation that institutions are value-laden that, therefore, social theory must be.

The fact that there is a multiplicity of values would indicate that, at a methodological level at least, some form of relativism is reasonable. I advocate the position that for human existential values, with which the social sciences are concerned, there can be no a priori ranking or hierarchy, by which I mean that the essential nature and transmissibility of all values is identical. That is not the same as saying that all values are equally valid in a particular professional context or for moral and social codes, which I do not believe; but these are, by contrast, a posteriori considerations. Despite their philosophical pedigree and exalted rhetoric, there is something curiously empty about absolute values. If absoluteness is to be sought, I will argue, it is in the interiority of values, in the immanence of the value experience.


The antinomy of interiority and exteriority is related to those of subjectivity/objectivity and absoluteness/relativity but is not the same. As far as I am aware, it is not even an issue within philosophy, but arises out of the problematic relationship of the social sciences with values, in which values have been fundamental but not easily understood (Hechter, 1993), and are treated as a theoretical black box: something which works well in an equation, a description of social structure or process, but whose properties are not well understood or even particularly important. In an early work, Parsons (1991), for example, for whom values are fundamental to the process of socialisation, links them explicitly with the unknowable, non-empirical elements of reality, and in one of his major works, The Social System, offers the following definition: ‘An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives of orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation can be considered a value’ (Parsons, 1951, p.12). This is what I refer to as the exteriority of values: values as ‘an element of a…system’.

Even psychological approaches to values frequently see them as performing a function. Mandler (1993), for example, proposes that values shape the emotions cognitively. However, this does not address the interior nature of values as such. Kluckhohn (1951, p.399) even links the psychological and the social: values are concepts, he argues, that achieve the regulation of:

impulse satisfaction in accord with the whole array of hierarchical, enduring goals of the personality, the requirements of both personality and sociocultural system for order, the need for respecting the interests of others and of the group as a whole in social living.

However, this hardly begins to address the issue of what values look like from the inside. It is only in phenomenological approaches that what I refer to as the interiority of values begins to be addressed. Marx’s (1992, p.37) conception of the basis of a phenomenological ethics is of particular interest, when he states that it is ‘concerned with the possibility of a transformation of ethical comportment on the basis of an experience that arises out of an emotion and thus plays a role in the formation of virtues, without, however, excluding reason in doing so’. The conceptualisation of experience in which the emotions are central will be fundamental to an understanding of what values are and how they are transmitted. Eliade (1957) in his phenomenological anthropology transcends even the psychological in locating the root of value in the experience of the numinous, the sacred. He maintains that even in the modern secular society we witness the retention of the sacred as a range of values in the sphere of private experience, the ‘holy places’ of a ‘private universe’ (ibid, p.24): ‘Even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world’ (ibid, p.23). For Eliade, this most atavistic of human experiences, for which he coins the term hierophany (the revelation of the sacred) is a universal phenomenon which underlies not only the foundation of all religions but the ontology of social living within an otherwise meaningless universe:

When the sacred manifests itself…there is not only a break in the homogeneity of space; there is also revelation of an absolute reality, opposed to the non-reality of the vast surrounding expanse. The manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world. In the homogeneous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center…The discovery or projection of a fixed point – the center – is equivalent to the creation of the world (ibid, p.21).

I believe that while the language of values is the language of a secular frame of reference, and many values, particularly those in the technical sphere, are unremittingly desacralized, as Eliade has argued, when the interiority of values is interrogated there is an element of the sacred in the way they command our emotional as well as rational commitment and orient our lives in particular directions, leading us to accept particular worldviews and reject others.


One problem in dealing with values is what I term ‘the surfeit of positive connotations’. By this I mean that it is near impossible to engage in a meta-discourse on values which is not itself value-laden. Rokeach (1973, p.3) specifically addresses this issue when he states that a ‘fruitful’ concept of values must be distinct from similar concepts, avoid circularity (self-definition), and take a value-free approach. I am uncertain whether Rokeach breaches his own criteria when he includes among the parameters of his definition, ‘something that is personally or socially preferable’ (ibid, p.5). The problem within the social sciences, related to that of relativity, discussed previously, is that values represent an assumed, unmediated and unmitigated good: good by definition. This causes some disquiet among moral philosophers. MacIntyre (1981, p.26) claims ‘on values reason is silent; conflict between values cannot be rationally settled. Instead one must simply choose’. I agree that if ‘rationally settled’ means that one value is proven and one disproven then conflict between values cannot be rationally settled; but it is quite incorrect that one must ‘just choose’. Both individually and as societies we accommodate and mitigate the outcome of conflicting values within an individual or social narrative. This is a practical application of reason. The psychological school, Lotze, von Ehrenfels and Meinong all posited a symmetry between values and disvalues, between ‘right loving’ and ‘right hating’ in the case of Lotze, applying a rational justification to the emotive response. I do not think that values and disvalues are exactly equivalent; values are more fundamental in terms of social organisation, but disvalues have a role in provoking a value response so can act as a reinforcement.

Provisional Conclusions

In the desire to establish a concept of value that can underlie a process of transmission, the inherently communicative nature of values is a fundamental premise. This rules out the concept of absolute values as given in the theories of Rickert and Munsterberg; their theories rely on the existence of a transcendental ego and a supreme willing of a lived-world. Their values may be absolute, but they are curiously empty. That is not to deny that there is something absolute about values, but their absoluteness lies in a particular quality of their ‘givenness’ in experience, not in their existence in an eternal world of forms. The concept of transmission entails communicative activity and the plurality of values, and therefore precludes the idea of intrinsic value; yet the relationship of values to the quality of ‘value’ needs to be explored. As several philosophers and psychologists have noted, values are profoundly connected to our feelings. Therefore, the concept of values is likely to be largely independent of, or at least supervenient on, the material world. Furthermore, a psychological trait as general and colourless as Perry’s ‘interest’ is unlikely to have much relevance. As Meinong asserted, though, this value feeling should be rooted in empathy for other’s feelings in social solidarity. If values are real, however, then the positivists charge must be addressed: values must leave some trace of their being.


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