The Genesis of Value

The Genesis of Value by Hans Joas is a complex book which begins with a deceptively simple question: how do values and value commitments arise? It even states its answer at the outset (“values arise in experiences of self-formation and self-transcendence”) before immediately recognising that the meaning of both question and answer are far from transparent and that the reasons for this opacity are far more interesting than the brute presentational fact of them having been offered in two sentences at the beginning of a book:

The concepts employed in both question and answer are not clearly defined – neither in philosophy and the social sciences, nor in the wider public debate about values; they are, in fact, extremely difficult to determine and are often essentially contested. It might be asked: what exactly is a value, for instance, and what is the relationship between values and value commitments? Is the concept of ‘value’ still an acceptable philosophical concept today at all – or is the public debate about values hopelessly old-fashioned, lagging behind more contemporary issues in philosophy? Can the concept of value remain a key concept in the social sciences once we have recognised the difficulties in operationalizing it for empirical research? Or would it be better simply to replace it with other concepts which better correspond to the methods of various branches of research, concepts such as ‘attitude’, ‘practices’ or ‘culture’? What actually is the relationship between ‘values’ and ‘norms’, categories which are frequently used as if they were interchangeable? (Joas 2000: 1)

This instability of meaning renders ‘hermeneutic efforts’ unavoidable, which presumably goes some way to explaining the book’s strategy of intricately and elegantly weaving an argumentative thread through a whole sequence of modern theorists and philosophers: Nietzsche, James, Durkheim, Simmel, Scheler, Dewey, Taylor, Mead and Rorty. There’s an understated urgency to this exegetical endeavour, deriving from the observation made by Joas early in the book that “In all Western societies today, serious discussions are now taking place about the shift in, and loss of, values, the opportunities and dangers which such processes present, and the necessity of either reviving old values or searching for new ones” (Joas 2000: 2). In this sense, we can see that a philosophical inquiry into the nature of value pursued through textual means can nonetheless have sociological ramifications. Not least of all because “sociological diagnoses often have profound consequences for the intensive public discussions” as the “parched soil of the public thirstily absorbs the analyses proffered by the social sciences on the subject of the change in and loss of values” (Joas 2000: 4). It’s in this context that Joas sees the ‘abstinence from value’ in the social sciences as deeply problematic, providing an opening for superficial treatments of value or the strategic mobilisation of the issue for political purposes. This politicisation of the value question itself intensifies the intellectual need for social scientific analyses,

Although, therefore, an increasing number of people take seriously and support a politics of values, the answer to the question as to how a stronger commitment to (old or new) values is actually supposed to come about, indeed, how value commitment arises at all, is still wholly lacking in the public debate. Wide-ranging agreement has only been reached in a negative aspect: that values cannot be produced rationally or disseminated through indoctrination … Value commitments clearly do not arise from conscious intentions , and yet we experience the feeling of ‘I can do no other’ which accompanies a strong value commitment not as a restriction, but as the highest expression of our free will. Without wishing to provide a compendium of tried and tested advice for politicians or educators, this book can be understood itself as a contribution to the fundamental resolution of this question: from what experiences does this apparently paradoxical feeling of an ineligible, and yet voluntary, commitment to values result? (Joas 2000: 5).

However Joas recognises that there are a number of common objections which might be raised in response to such an inquiry. Firstly, some would argue that the question itself is ‘superfluous’ because human action and its value orientations exercise little or no influence on the course of historical change. This is perhaps the crucial objection for the account offered by Joas,

Sociologically, it seems clear to me that the discourse about values must become more intensive the less it is thought that political attitudes or social movements result quasi-automatically from material interests or resources. If we consider, say, ecological movements or waves of religious revival, we see that these certainly do not take place in a space wholly free of interests and independent of resources. But that does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that we may attribute a value-orientated character to them only in the sense that movements can develop, after passing through many stages of escalation, a fundamentally alternative value orientation. A radical shift in value orientation can, rather, be constitutive of them. Such a constitutive shift in value orientation certainly does not arise by mere coincidence, either. To explain its genesis, or at least its distribution, we can often cite social structural conditions which first prompted the search for a reinterpretation of the principles justifying a prevailing status hierarchy. But the question of the availability of alternative values, of the affinity of certain belief systems for social structural change and of the conditions for ‘ideological’ innovation, leads back to the irreducible character of the cultural, even in such materialistically influenced diagnoses. (Joas 2000: 6).

Another common objection raised against the discussion of value has parallel roots in liberal and postmodernist thought. In such cases, talk of value is suspected to represent an attempt to impose values on others. In the postmodern version this is construed in terms of the suppression of difference and in the liberal version it is regarded as breaching the priority of the right over the good. As Joas notes, “the liberals prefer the orientation of all to value-free procedures of peaceful co-operation and communication; and the postmodernists an ethos of respect for difference and all-inclusive tolerance” (Joas 2000: 7). Both objections collapse when pursued too doggedly because they inadvertently dramatise their own contradictions: “the liberals must ask themselves whether the value of the value-free procedures they favour must not at least be consensually shared and internalized as value; and the postmodernists cannot avoid portraying tolerance of and respect for the Other itself as utterly non-relativizable value-contents” (Joas 2000: 7).

The third objection Joas addresses is one which disputes the value of an inquiry into the nature of values because of the “complete uncertainty about values” which characterises our contemporary age. However such claims have an uncertain status when analysed, as Joas observes: “even the most dedicated advocate of the uncertainty thesis will not dispute that many people continue to feel absolutely secure in their particular values and react to their violation with intense outrage” (Joas 2000: 8). One way round this tricky empirical fact is to interpret this value-certainty as a “sign  of ignorance or as the expression of an historically inadequate consciousness”. Another way to deal with this “discrepancy between widespread subjective- value-certainty and the modern uncertainty about the foundation of values” is that adopted by the late Robert Bellah and his team in Habits of the Heart. One of the many interesting arguments in this astonishing (though flawed) book is their observation that interviewees were unable to justify the value commitments, of which they felt deeply certain, leading to “expressed helplessness, and anger at this very helplessness” (Joas 2000: 9). The disjuncture between subjective value-certainty and objective cultural uncertainty was thus seen to be experienced at the individual level when individuals were challenged to justify those values of which they were so certain. Bellah et al interpreted the “inability to justify value-security contained in this answer as indicative of the loss of a common language which makes such justification easier” (Joas 2000: 9). Their project was fundamentally ameliorative, with this underlying social and cultural pathology “not to be corrected by ensuring that everyone receives the news of uncertainty, but by revising the way we reflect on the foundations of our experience of value” (Joas 2000: 10).

This is true of The Genesis of Value itself, in its attempt to “clarify a question which, situated on an anthropological level, is mostly overlooked rather than answered, by empirical research” (joas 2000: 12). Joas is concerned with “making available the appropriate theoretical tools to describe these experiences” of value orientation and, as such, to “draw us closer to that centre of human experience in which values originate in us” (Joas 2000: 10). The occlusion of these issues has its roots in modern intellectual history:

We can see quite clearly how important post-war schools of thought grew out of highly value-related impulses of the pre-war period, but then endeavoured to emancipate themselves from their value-related origins and to give the impression of their being a constantly advancing, professionalized solution to purely scientific problems …. For one hundred years, and thus since the birth of the academic discipline of sociology, a permanent gulf has divided those who, mainly influenced by economics, view human action as the pursuit of self-advantage or clear interests, or at the very least stable and largely context-independent preferences, and those who emphasise the irreducible character of the normative dimension of human action. The controversy between ‘utilitarians’ and ‘normativists’ runs through the entire theoretical development of this discipline, although that does not mean that there have been no attempts to synthesise the rival directions or to find a third way. It is my thesis that both sides on the front-line between utilitarianism and normativism – at least in their previous and present forms – have the greatest difficulties in analysising the genesis of values (and norms). (Joas 2000: 13)

It’s in this sense that we can see the quiet ambition underlying the project undertaken by Joas. Not only is he concerned with addressing one of the central pathologies of modern life but he also seeks to reorientate social theory. In fact the two ambitions go hand-in-hand given that the demands of the former are seen to necessitate the latter. What I find so oddly beguiling about this book is the casualness with which these lofty goals subsist throughout such an elegantly crafted sequences of chapters analysing important philosophers and theorists who have contributed in some way to the project Joas now seems to implicitly see himself as concluding.


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6 replies »

  1. Seems worth reading, thanks for the review! To take up what you said in the last paragraph, maybe Joas sees his book rather as beginning that reorientation project, and not concluding it? Obviously, it isn’t possible to provide a neat answer to such a big question.

  2. Since Foucault, I cannot see such a search for “genesis of values” as another attempt to de-historicize the present liberal humanist values (including the illusion of the control of the values themselves by the individual) rendering them as absolute and natural. It is certainly no accident that Foucault is not mentioned.

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